Joseph Denby: 'Nothing makes you appreciate Cornell more than leaving.'

Joseph Denby

Psychology & Philosophy

State College, PA

What was your most profound turning point while at Cornell?

It's tough to choose just one, so I won't. One was when I took Ancient Philosophy with Tad Brennan. That class completely changed my perspective on what it means to be a have a good relationship with friends, strangers, and oneself. After a (probably typical) dance with existentialism, I was glad to be inoculated by Plato's optimism – I became convinced of the good people can achieve if they have the wisdom to think carefully and kindly about and with others. Another was when I studied Computational Psychology with Shimon Edelman. His course convinced me of the utility of science and mathematics when it comes to investigating the mind. While much of philosophy tries to preserve the "magic" of humanity through the spooky or the metaphysical, empirical methods and findings that explain our complexity organically can inspire just as much wonder, if not more.

What, if any, research projects did you participate in at Cornell?

In Mike Goldstein's lab I researched the influence of social contingency on song development in zebra finches by listening to a young male bird's attempts at song and playing a video of a female subtly lifting its wings (very high praise) when it was sufficiently mature. And I'm now completing an honors thesis supervised by Shimon Edelman researching the effects of attention and expectation cues on your working and long-term memory.

What do you value about your liberal arts education?

I really appreciate having had the opportunity to learn both technical skills that prepare me for a career as well as ideas that are personally enriching. Without my liberal arts education, I might still be in the same headspace I was as a freshman (which sounds truly terrifying.)

If you were to offer advice to an incoming first year student, what would you say?

Go abroad! Building a life somewhere completely new is the best way to develop your understanding of the world and yourself. I spent a year at Oxford and had an amazing time studying, traveling, and making lifelong friends. After having conquered trials like navigating rural Transylvania using only broken Romanian and pantomime, the world feels much more friendly, and I feel much more confident embracing it. And nothing makes you appreciate Cornell more than leaving.

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 Joseph Denby