In the syllabus for the course Workings of the Mind, there is a section devoted to students who might need to seek psychological help after class discussions. Included are two phone numbers: Tuttleman Counseling Services and the Psychological Services Center.
The syllabus reads, “This course will change the way you think about the mind, and it may even change your life. As you struggle with the course material, you may find that your sense of self and your understanding of your experiences also change.”
Andrew Karpinski has taught Workings of the Mind for six years. The professor said he includes this “warning” to students in all of his syllabi for different classes he teaches as a safety precaution, but he said he is concerned about Workings of the Mind in particular.
“It’s more applicable in this class – we do things like question the nature of our own existence,” Karpinski said. “That could be troubling to some people.”
During the course of the semester, students in Workings of the Mind are asked to rethink reality and study the nature of both conscious and unconscious mental processes. Karpinski said the course is perplexing because of how much is scientifically unknown about the topics covered.
Karpinski places a heavy emphasis on contemplation. He said he thinks of the course as an “intersection between psychology, neuroscience and philosophy.”
The course fulfills the general education human behavior requirement, but freshman Stephanie Deschamps said it’s unlike any other gen-ed course she’s taken. Deschamps said Workings of the Mind forces students to think about what is normally outside their comfort zones.
“You’re learning about your unconscious mind,” the advertising major and leadership minor said. “Most people have no idea how much it controls our behavior. You think about the reasons why you make decisions, like why you choose this over that. So this class gives you insight on how to define yourself.”
The course assignments can push students’ boundaries, such as examining the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks.
Sacks attempted to understand blindness through his study of one man’s experiences. Karpinski said many people who went blind wrote to Sacks and argued that their own processes of vision loss and resulting perceptions of the world were different from what his study found.
After his students read the study, Karpinski instructs them to wear blindfolds for an hour.
“[Students] have to do something where they’re not just watching TV, but where they’re interacting with people and notice those experiences of what happens when you’re without vision,” Karpinski said.
Ironically, Karpinski called this an “eye-opening” experience.
“There are multiple ways of seeing things – there are multiple ways of going blind,” Karpinski said. “Other senses become acute.”
Freshman nursing major Kaitlyn Friedman said some course assignments have led her to other self-discoveries.
“We test our own prejudices about racism and gender roles,” Friedman said. “We learn to understand that even though you constantly try to not have these prejudices, your unconscious has already made them and you can’t turn that off. It kind of sucks to know that, even though we don’t want to.”
Karpinski said topics like this make Workings of the Mind a unique class.
“It’s different from other classes that have a fixed body of knowledge,” Karpinski said. “There’s no right or wrong answer. We could debate whether or not we have free will – we don’t know the answers to those things.”
Such open-ended concepts can overwhelm students, Karpinski said. While Deschamps said she first recommended the class to all her friends, she is hesitant to recommend it to everyone.
“You have to be open to things that don’t make sense and not having an answer,” Deschamps said. “This was difficult for me, but at some point you have to let go of what you previously knew and be open to all these ideas. You question theories that we find so basic to human nature. You need to be ready to experience something completely new about life that you didn’t know before and maybe some people don’t have the capacity to become blank slates.”
Karpinski said many students come to the class with previously fixed opinions on topics like the nature of the mind and the body and warned that class can aggravate some religious beliefs.
“There can be some resistance to change, but I always say I don’t have to change your mind, I just have to let you understand why someone might believe something different from you,” Karpinski said.
Despite the potential for confusion, Karpinski said he believes students benefit from Workings of the Mind when they confront the perspectives of their peers. Deschamps said the course changed the way she thinks about herself.
“I’m able to talk to people about really interesting topics,” Deschamps said. “I’m able to have psychological debates about existence and that makes me feel really empowered.”
Karpinski said this is what he hopes the course accomplishes.
“The whole goal is to understand ourselves better,” Karpinski said. “It becomes reasonable to say that we don’t know ourselves that well. I tell students that at the end of the semester they will be more confused than they are at the beginning of the semester. I want students to be confused, but to understand why they’re confused and recognize that that itself is progress. That’s learning.”
Claire Sasko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.