Undergraduate Majors at Penn Related to Mind, Brain, and Behavior

Deciphering the complex relationship between brain activity and the vastness of human intelligence and behavior is one of today’s most daunting and important scientific challenges. A critical related question at the interface of the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities is whether an understanding of the mind at the individual level will lead to a deeper understanding of the behaviors of a group. There are several majors across Penn that provide foundations to explore these questions and learn about what is currently known about mind, brain, and human behavior.


Majors within the School of Arts & Sciences

The following majors within the College all have a component of their curriculum* related to mind & brain:

*Note, there are several other majors in the College that also involve the study of mind, brain, or human behavior. See a full list of College Majors here: https://catalog.upenn.edu/undergraduate/arts-sciences/majors/.

Cognitive Science: the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind and its processes
Cognitive Science (COGS) is the study of intelligent systems, the study of thought, learning, and mental organization, using research methods from psychology, neuroscience, computer science and systems theory such as behavioral experiments, brain imaging, and computational modeling to evaluate areas such as language processing, perception, action, learning, concept formation, inference and other activities of the mind. MindCORE is the academic home for Cognitive Science at Penn. Cognitive Science is a relatively recent field of study that was not formally organized until the 1970s in part following work by Penn graduate Noam Chomsky’s rejection of behaviorist assumptions that language is a learned habit, who instead proposed a universal grammar with a certain set of structural rules innate to humans.

A popular major (along with BBB and HSOC) for students planning to attend medical school, students who major in cognitive science do well in careers that are major growth fields of the twenty-first century, including information processing, medical analysis, data retrieval, human-computer interaction, and education.

Anthropology: the study of human societies and cultures and their development
Anthropology is the global social science, the study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Unlike other social sciences, it not only studies the human condition everywhere, it also studies its biological as well as its cultural diversity, and how that diversity evolved and developed from the past into the present. Anthropology has been taught at Penn since 1886, in close association with the Penn Museum, which was established at the same time.

The Penn Anthropology c­­urriculum is based on the proposition that in order to ride the scientific, economic and political waves of a globalizing world, to be a global citizen, students must understand: (1) the biology without which you would not be human, (2) the historical processes and trajectories that have led to the different cultural and social forms of the modern world, and (3) the contemporary patterns of social, economic, and political interaction. Majoring in Anthropology equips students with the intellectual skills they need to work in a globally inter-connected world. Whether students plan to pursue a career in business, or government, or medicine, or law, or any other profession, a background in anthropology prepares them to pursue their goals.

Biological Basis of Behavior (BBB) Program: an interdisciplinary major that explores biological, psychological, computational and clinical approaches to understand the nervous system
Biological Basis of Behavior (BBB) is an interdisciplinary program in which students explore the relationship between behavior (both human and animal) and its organic bases. The BBB program offers courses in virtually all areas of neuroscience ranging from cellular neurobiology to cognitive neuropsychology and integrates these interdisciplinary courses with basic science requirements in biology, chemistry and psychology. The BBB program, created in 1978 as one of the first neuroscience undergraduate programs in the country, allows students to explore a broad range of topics in the neural sciences through courses taught by faculty and staff in several departments in the School of Arts and Sciences and the Schools of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

A distinguishing feature of the major is the emphasis placed on encouraging students to become actively involved in research. Students are also engaged in supervised research in areas as diverse as molecular neurobiology, chemical neuroanatomy, visual sciences and behavioral ecology and are working to push forward our knowledge of how neural circuits give rise to complex behaviors and how these circuits go awry in psychiatric and neurological disorders. Many BBB graduates go on to medical school or graduate study in other sciences. Graduates also often work in healthcare, consulting, and research.

Biology: the science of life and living organisms
Biology (BIOL) is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their physical structure, chemical processes, molecular interactions, physiological mechanisms, development and evolution. The Penn Biology curriculum introduces students to the many ways of understanding the function and diversity of living organisms and to the role of biology in the modern world. There are three concentrations with the biology major with an emphasis on brain and behavior:

Computational Biology and Mathematical Biology concentrations 
Many areas in genetics, ecology, and evolution depend on sophisticated quantitative analysis. For example, the advent of data from the human genome project has shown the need for computer, statistical and mathematical methods to store, retrieve and analyze massive data sets. The new field of Computational and Mathematical Biology has emerged to address questions posed by these developments.

Neurobiology concentration
The Neurobiology Concentration provides fundamental training in brain function and behavior, coupled with a molecular genetic background essential to address molecular mechanisms of brain function at the gene and protein levels.

An undergraduate degree in biology prepares students for a diverse range of careers, including, research in universities, research institutes, biotechnology firms, and pharmaceutical companies; medicine, dentistry, physical therapy, public health, and other health-related professions; education; positions within zoos, natural history museums, nature centers, and fish and wildlife departments; pharmaceutical sales; and science writing, medical illustration, and a number of other professional positions.

Criminology: the scientific study of crime and criminals
Criminology (CRIM) is an interdisciplinary field in both the behavioral and social sciences, drawing especially upon the research of sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, psychiatrists, biologists, social anthropologists, as well as scholars of law. The criminology Major offers students a unique education in crime and criminal justice policy. Students majoring in criminology will gain a broad understanding of the socio-political context of crime and the bio-psychological analysis of violent and anti-social behavior. Penn offers the only undergraduate major in criminology at an Ivy League university. The major was designed with an emphasis on theoretical and methodological frameworks developed in the social and behavioral sciences for generating and assessing knowledge about crime and social control. These frameworks, from statistics to neuroscience, constitute a truly liberal approach to the subject of crime.

Graduates from criminology often go into legal services, consulting, and government. Many graduates work as paralegals or go to law school.

Economics: the social science that studies the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services
Economics studies the allocation of scarce resources. At the core of economics are theories of how individuals, firms, and other organizations make choices and interact, taking into account constraints on their behaviors. Among the topics studied in economics are: the determination of prices and quantities in various types of markets (from perfectly competitive commodity markets to highly regulated utility markets and internet auctions); the effects of taxes, subsidies, and regulations; the determination of aggregate economic activity (e.g., GDP, unemployment); inflation, monetary policy, and financial intermediation; economic growth and income distribution; international trade and international finance (e.g., exchange rates).

A major in economics gives training in economic principles and in the application of economic modeling techniques to understanding a variety of economic and social phenomena. The economics major provides a strong background in analytical thinking, quantitative data analysis, as well as general “literacy” in economics, which are critical skills for today’s dynamic job market. Many students take positions in the financial industry, in management consulting firms, economic consulting firms (forecasting or litigation), or as research associates at Federal Reserve Banks or think tanks.

Health & Societies: Uses the tools of the humanities and social sciences to study science, technology,medicine, and the environment
The Health and Societies (HSOC) major, housed within the Department of History and Sociology of Science, examines health and medicine in social context, equipping students with the critical faculties and multidisciplinary skills that will prepare them for careers in public health, health services, and a variety of other arenas. The program is built on the foundation of three core disciplines: anthropology, history, and sociology. Methods and courses from other disciplines and fields—including epidemiology, political science, business/economics, law, environmental studies, and bioethics—supplement the core disciplines and provide majors with the variety of skills necessary to grasp the forces that have shaped our contemporary health landscapes.

The Health and Societies graduate is a “multilingual” scholar and citizen, fluent in the methods and perspectives of several social science disciplines—theoretically informed but practically minded, with a global outlook and local experience. HSOC graduates commonly go on to careers in communications, consulting, law & legal services, education, non-profit/social service, government and healthcare and graduate school in health-related fields.

Linguistics: the scientific study of language and its structure
Linguistics (LING) is the scientific study of human language, from the sounds and gestures of speech up to the organization of words, sentences, and meaning. Linguists are seeking to understand the unconscious knowledge that humans have about language, how children acquire language, the structure of language in general and of particular languages, how languages vary, and how language influences the way in which we interact with each other and think about the world. The Department of Linguistics at Penn is the oldest modern linguistics department in the US, founded in 1947. Penn’s department is known for its interdisciplinary research, spanning many subfields of linguistics, as well as integration of theory, corpus research, field work, and cognitive and computer science.

The major in linguistics is intended to acquaint the student with the methods and findings of the scientific study of human language and its relationships to cognition, society, and history. It serves as a preparation for graduate training in linguistics or related areas, and as part of a rigorous general education. Linguistic training is relevant to work in anthropology, philosophy, psychology, and language and literature, as well as to careers in such fields as education, computer science, and law.

Philosophy: the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence
Philosophy (PHIL) asks basic questions about the nature of human thought, the nature of the universe, and the connections between them. Taught at Penn since 1755, the study of philosophy develops several skills, including, critical thinking, evaluation and construction of chains of reasoning, and clear written communication on complex topics. It examines our most fundamental concepts and principles of reality and rationality through close analysis and reasoned argument. It clarifies, criticizes, and influences thought in the formal sciences, the natural sciences, and the humanities and arts; it formulates and criticizes social, legal, and political theory; and it tackles fundamental questions about our place in nature and our capacity for knowledge.

Philosophy majors may go to medical, business, law, or seminary school following graduation, or pursue various careers, such as business consulting or humanitarian non-government organizations, or any other career where reasoning and writing are vital.

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE): an interdisciplinary major that combines study from the three disciplines in its name.
The Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) major offers an integrated, cross-disciplinary perspective that combines broad and rigorous training in the foundations of the allied disciplines. PPE students are free to explore and integrate many relevant disciplines and research areas on a wide range of important issues from the nature and implications of human decision-making to questions of justice and the ethical consequences of the competitions and markets, to the dynamic relationships between the economic, political and legal orders. The rigor of the PPE program ensures students can analyze problems from an individual perspective – developed in microeconomics, social psychology, game theory and behavioral economics – and understand political and economic systems – with courses in social contract, public policy and macroeconomics.

The major is intended to prepare its graduates for careers in public policy and public service, consulting, journalism, law and international affairs among others. It is an excellent pre-law major and it also offers suitable preparation for graduate study in any of the participating disciplines. Students go on to pursue a variety of careers after graduating with a PPE major, popular sectors include finance, consulting, public policy, technology, and education.

Psychology: the scientific study of the mind and behavior
Psychology (PSYC) is the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context. It deals with how we perceive information in the world, how we process that information, how we respond to it emotionally and cognitively, how we learn about it, and how our mental processes change over time. Psychologists explore behavior and mental processes, including perception, cognition, attention, emotion (affect), intelligence, phenomenology, motivation, brain functioning, and personality. Because of the breadth of its content and its methodology, Psychology makes contact with a wide variety of other disciplines and interdisciplinary activities.

Psychology provides the kind of analytic and conceptual skills which are relevant to becoming a thinking person. It also can serve as the foundation for any number of careers including the obvious ones such as substance abuse counselor, human resources personnel, school counselor, clinical psychologist, and psychiatrist.

Sociology: the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society
The Sociology (SOCI) major seeks to provide students with an understanding of social structure and how individuals’ experiences are related to that structure. Majoring in Sociology helps students identify and explain patterns of social life and human behavior by emphasizing how large-scale social phenomena (such as class, race and gender inequality) affect the everyday experiences of individuals, and vice versa. Sociology also introduces students to the conceptual and methodological tools of social science research, including ethnography, social statistics, and demographic methods.

One of the oldest departments of sociology in the country, Penn Sociology was once home to W.E.B. Du Bois, during which time he performed field research that formed the foundation for his landmark study, “The Philadelphia Negro,” published in 1899. Majoring in sociology prepares students for careers in fields such as law, medicine and health care, marketing, education, scholarly and applied social research, social work, demography, journalism and media, management in the public and private sectors, administration, and government.

Visual Studies: the exploration of the interactions among eye, mind and image
New technologies and philosophies of vision influence how we see ourselves and our world, and how we think about seeing itself. The Visual Studies Major (VLST) was created in 2003 to allow students to directly engage these developments through a multi-disciplinary course of study, connecting the theory, practice, and culture of seeing. Visual Studies at the University of Pennsylvania prepares students to forge innovative connections across the disciplines that study vision and images. It includes scientific and philosophical approaches to vision, the history of art, visual art-making, and interactions among these. Students acquire a critical awareness of seeing and the problems and possibilities for investigating, thinking, and writing about seeing in the 21st century. Fundamentally interdisciplinary, the Visual Studies Program partners with the Departments of Philosophy, Psychology, History of Art, Fine Arts, and Architecture.

The Visual Studies major serves as a liberal arts preparation that develops visual literacy, studio skills, and knowledge of visual science and visual theory. It provides strong and distinctive preparation for continuing on to graduate or professional training in several fields, including philosophy, perceptual psychology, history of art, fine arts, and architecture. Graduates with a major in Visual Studies go on to work in communications, education, retail, non-profit/social service, and other fields.

Majors within the School of Engineering

There are a number of majors in the School of Engineering related to mind and brain, particularly in Bioengineering (BE) and Computer Information Science (CIS).

Bioengineering (BE): the use of artificial tissues, organs, or organ components to replace damaged or absent parts of the body, such as artificial limbs and pacemakers

Penn Engineering is home to one of the oldest and most successful bioengineering departments in the US consistently ranking among the top 10 in the country. The bioengineering program is a springboard for discovery in engineering, medicine, business, and the arts and sciences.  There are two options for bioengineering degrees: a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (BSE) in Bioengineering and a Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) in Biomedical Science. The BSE is a good choice for students who want a degree from an accredited engineering program, potentially to become a licensed professional engineer. This degree involves an in-depth BE-focused curriculum. If your goal is to study engineering in graduate school, the BSE is the better option. The BAS degree is a better fit for students who don’t need to become a licensed professional engineer, want a broader curriculum, or have other career goals in mind such as medical school, consulting, healthcare management, law, etc. This degree is more helpful if your goal is to study in the basic sciences in graduate school.

Computer Information Science (CIS)

Penn Engineering is the birthplace of the modern computer with ENIAC in 1946. For over 70 years, the field of computer science at Penn has been marked by exciting innovations and strong connections with many other disciplines such as mathematics, electrical engineering, biology, economics, linguistics and philosophy among others. CIS faculty are conducting research across many areas of computer science, including intelligent systems, information systems, hardware and software systems, networks and theory. There are a number of CIS majors related to mind and brain, including those that lead to a Bachelor of Science in Engineering (BSE) degree, which is a traditional engineering degree that prepares students for careers in professional engineering, computer science or digital media design; OR the Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) Degree, which offers students breadth and allows them to combine a technology-based degree with considerable course work in the liberal arts, communications, or fine arts. This degree is designed primarily for students whose interests are not oriented toward a professional engineering career.

Bachelor of Science in Engineering (BSE) in Networked & Social Systems Engineering (NETS)

The Singh Program in Networked & Social Systems Engineering (NETS), is the world’s first course of study to fully integrate the disciplines needed to design and analyze the complex networks that are reshaping our society. To understand the Internet, to predict behavior on it, and to design new capabilities and services for it, we must study it as an assembly of people and systems, interlinked by a technological network with particular structure and properties.  These are the foci of the Singh Program, which studies networked interactions of all varieties, and pays particular attention to the interplay of technology, economics and sociology in networked setting.

Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) in Computer Science (ASCS)

Majors in Science use, analyze and create information processing systems for whatever career, advanced education, or personal interests you choose to pursue. A degree in computer science provides students with an in-depth education in the conceptual foundations of computer science and in complex software and hardware systems allowing student to explore the connections between computer science and a variety of other disciplines in engineering and outside. A BAS in computer science combines knowledge of technology with an understanding of human and social values, and is designed for students who do not plan to work as professional engineers, and want a customized education which combines the liberal arts and technology in a manner unique to their career goals.

Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) Computational Biology (ASCB)

Computational Biology intertwines the disciplines of computer science, biology, chemistry, genetics and statistics to study biological systems and address problems inspired by biology. A BAS in Computational Biology requires that students augment a basic computer science curriculum with courses in biology, chemistry, genetics and statistics. This program has a year-long capstone course in computational biology that is co-taught by faculty in computer science, biology and genetics.

Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) Computer and Cognitive Science (ASCC)

Computer and Cognitive Science student study the mind and behavior using the engineering discipline of computer science and incorporating the areas of neuroscience, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, sociology and biology, just to name a few. Cognitive science is a science of mental information processing that requires collaborative research in several disciplines. In the cognitive science program at Penn Engineering, the opportunity exists for studying a diversity of subjects which satisfy personal desires, developing a broad foundation for adapting to new societal demands, and maintaining flexibility for moving into new areas of interest.

Majors within the Wharton School

All Wharton undergraduate students graduate with a bachelor of science in economics, but students choose focused areas of study called concentrations. A few of these are related to human behavior. The full undergraduate Wharton offering is here: https://undergrad.wharton.upenn.edu/

Behavioral Economics

Over the last 30 years, psychologists and economists have joined forces to study how people process information and actually make decisions, rather than how they would make decisions if they were fully rational and selfish. This new collaborative field, behavioral economics, has provided an understanding of how people’s decisions deviate from “optimal” choices and the consequences of such deviations for consumers, managers, firms, and policy.

This joint concentration between the Operations, Information, and Decisions Department and the Business Economics and Public Policy Department explores the behavioral aspects of economics and decision making. The concentration provides students with the opportunity to develop an understanding of: (a) the rational actor model, (b) modifications to that model that reflect the psychology of human behavior, and (c) implications of those modifications for decision-makers, markets, and public policy.

Behavioral economics and behavioral finance are having a major impact on how we think about markets for consumer goods and services, including consumer finance markets.  Anyone interested in working in those markets, investing in those markets, or analyzing those markets will need to know some behavioral economics in order to be on the cutting edge.

Legal Studies & Business Ethics

The Legal Studies and Business Ethics Concentration focuses on the social values, moral concerns, and legal considerations that are essential aspects of business decision making in our global market system. The courses students take in this program help them explore how responsible business leaders can engage ethically and effectively with diverse cultures, corporate stakeholders, government regulators, and legal systems. Of special value to students seeking to broaden their business education, this concentration will help them acquire essential, non-quantitative reasoning skills that are required when leaders face difficult choices under conditions of empirical uncertainty and/or moral ambiguity – a frequent occurrence in fast-moving market economies.  Students pursuing this concentration will gain a number of analytic skills, including: identifying moral and legal issues hidden within complex, culturally rich fact patterns; reasoning from moral principles to specific ethical and legal conclusions; reasoning by analogy between like cases and situations; and arguing from authoritative rules and precedents to specific, logically consistent recommendations for action.