What would be a more suitable background to enter cognitive sciences, mathematical psychology, and study of emotions? I have the option of taking a Integrated Masters Degree in Mathematical Sciences, or Physical Sciences. Going into which field will allow me to contribute greater to the study of the mind? Also, which field gives me more research options for the same?
closed as not constructive by Chuck Sherrington, Ben Brocka, Jeff, Josh Gitlin♦ May 1 '13 at 23:30
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Looking back at the history of current academic psychology, I would say that it has a tripartite foundation: The beginnings of psychology lie in ancient Greek to early modern metaphysics, that is the philosophical speculation about the nature of the soul (psyche). Many psychological concepts (such as the psyche itself, but also consciousness, volition, emotion etc.) are metaphysical in origin and nature, that is: they have never been empirically proven to exist. In this respect modern psychology and cognitive sciences are still metaphysical.
Since the eighteenth century philosophers (beginning with Christian Wolff) have attempted to conceive of a measurement of these psychic constructs. The theory and practice of this measurement has been developed by scholars from a more medical (such as Wundt) or more natural sciences background (such as Fechner and Helmholtz). If you wonder about the relevance of physics or geology to psychology, then you must first understand that scholars of that age were still almost always polymaths, educated and practicing in a variety of fields. If you look at their scientific biographies, you'll realize that they were not "physicists" or "physicians" in the currents sense, but interested in and researching the whole of "God's creation". What Fechner brought to psychology was not physics, but the methodology of physics: the experiment and the mathematical analysis of the experiment's results.
The third foundation of psychology today is, of course, physiology. Since the Descartes' substance dualism (that the soul is a substance independent of the body) has been effectively abandoned by modern philosophers in favor of a physicalist position (that the mind is an effect of the body or, specifically, the brain), psychology and, more specifically, neuropsychology has attempted to understand where in the brain which psychological processes are taking place, and how.
More and more of today's cognitive sciences are performed by biologists and medical scientist. Many researchers in our (psychology) department are already from a medical background, and the departments of medicine and biology have large laboratories doing psychological research. If psychology does not want to become irrelevant, psychologists have to become experts in neurophysiology.
Another huge influence is research by economists (Kahnemann etc.), who bring a lot of statistics with them. The relevance and status as a scientific discipline of psychology rest on the ability of psychologists to not only apply mathematical and statistical models developed in fields with different perspectives and purposes, but the ability to develop models and methods of mathematical analysis that fit psychological phenomena.
Unfortunately most psychologists and cognitive scientists lack in philosophy of science, so they don't understand when and where their research is leaving the firm ground of experimental science and entering the domain of metaphysical speculation.
What I believe is the best foundation for meaningful psychological research today is, therefore, threefold:
Borsboom (2006) explains, why mathematics is fundamental to the development of psychology: most psychologists are unable to understand, develop and apply the theoretical models of item response theory, therefore current psychology is using classical test theory, which has several shortcomings.
Borsboom, D. (2006). The Attack of the Psychometricians. Psychometrika, 71, 425-440.
If you downvote, please provide a critique, so I can amend my mistakes. A downvote without comment is not really helpful. Thank you.
Now that @ofri has presented a good argument for physics, I'll give a few arguments for the benefits of a course in maths, and particularly a math course that focuses heavily on statistics.
There are many areas of psychology where a good understanding of statistics is very helpful. Statistics is particularly useful in psychometrics, mathematical psychology, and more broadly, any research involving multivariate or other more complex statistical methods. Furthermore, the statistics that is often taught in undergraduate psychology programs is often more applied, focussing on how to interpret common statistical techniques. If you have a degree in mathematics and statistics, you should be able to understand the techniques used in psychological data analysis in a deeper way.
In particular, calculus, linear algebra, probability, mathematical statistics, statistical computing, and a wide range of statistics subjects (e.g., introductory statistics, multivariate statistics, bayesian statistics, etc.) are a huge help when it comes to contributing to the psychological literature using advanced quantitative methods.
Also, when it comes to seeking an academic position, the capacity to teach statistics and research methods to psychology students is often a bonus, as is the capacity to consult and collaborate with fellow researchers on statistical methods.
My background is as someone who has specialised in the interface of statistics and psychology. Thus, I am biased, but equally I consider that I am in a fairly good position to have seen the benefits to my own and many other people's psychological research careers in having good quantitative skills.
I would go with Physics.
Physicists study the world using mathematics, while mathematicians study mathematics itself which is a construct that does not necessarily exist in the real world (Albert Einstein once said: "as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."). This means that physicists encounter the interface between theory and experimentations, just like cognitive researchers, while mathematicians do not.
I think this is the reason why there are many examples of models developed in the study of Physics being applied successfully in cognitive science (e.g The famous Hopfield model (1982); Spin-Glass, Amit et al (1985); Ornstein-Uhlenbeck, Heath (2000); Diffusion, Ratcliff et al (2004) ). Obviously, all of these examples use math heavily. But while a mathematics student would study them using a theoretical approach, a physics student would probably study them emphasizing their application.
(PS. My bachelor's degree is in Math, Physics, and Computer science, so I think I can say I'm unbiased here... At least I hope so)