Cognitive Science Colloquium

Fall 2010

All meetings take place on Thursdays, 3.30-5.30 pm in Bioscience Research Building 1103, unless otherwise indicated.


September 9 — Bradley Postle (Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Title: Exploring working memory: The functions and physiology of delay-period activity
Abstract: At least since the time of Hebb (1949), a governing assumption in psychology and neurophysiology has been that the short-term retention of information is accomplished via activity that spans the delay separating the prehension of information and the subsequent use of that information to guide behavior. The advent of "information-based" analysis techniques provides the opportunity to refine this assumption by assessing the nature of the information being represented across the delay period rather than simply the level of activity in different brain areas. Indeed, the results from recent studies in our laboratory challenge the very assumption that delay-period activity, as measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), is primarily mnemonic in nature, and instead suggest an intriguing alternative. In parallel, to better understand the physiological properties of delay-period activity, we are pairing electroencephalogram (EEG) recording with simultaneous delivery of high-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). These studies are revealing important roles for neuronal oscillations in several discrete frequency bands, and in several discrete brain systems, in determining individual differences in performance on tests of short-term memory. Together, these studies illustrate how, with the application of cognitive neuroscience techniques, categorical thinking about cognitive constructs such as "working memory" is giving way to a more empirically grounded understanding of how the brain supports complex behaviors.

September 23  — Gregory Hickok (Cognitive Science, UC Irvine)

Title: The Computational Nature and Neural Organization of Sensory-Motor Integration in Speech Processing
Abstract: Sensory-motor integration in the domain of speech processing is an exceptionally active area of research and can be summarized by two main ideas: (1) the auditory system is critically involved in the production of speech and (2) the motor system is critically involved in the perception of speech. Both ideas address the need for “parity”, as Liberman put it, between and the auditory and motor speech systems, but emphasize opposite directions of influence. Somewhat paradoxically, it is the researchers studying speech production who promote an audio-centric view and the researchers studying speech perception who promote a motor-centric view.  Even more paradoxically, despite the obvious complementarity between these lines of investigation, there is virtually no theoretical interaction between them. I will consider the relation between these two ideas regarding sensory-motor interaction in speech and whether they might be integrated into a single functional anatomic framework.  To this end, I will review evidence for the role of the auditory system in speech production, evidence for the role of the motor system in speech perception, and recent progress in mapping an auditory-motor integration circuit for speech and related functions (vocal music). We will then consider a unified framework in which sensory-motor integration functions primarily in support speech production in an audio-centric fashion, but can also subserve top-down motor modulation of the auditory system during speech perception. The role of the purported "mirror system" in these circuits will also be addressed. Finally, I discuss a range of possible clinical correlates of dysfunction of this sensory-motor integration circuit.

October 7 — Athena Vouloumanos (Psychology, NYU)

Title: Understanding Communication in Infancy
Humans routinely engage in complex communicative interactions. As adults, we recognize that speech and gestures can communicate even if we cannot understand the specific content, for instance when listening to speakers converse in a foreign language or use unfamiliar gestures. A fundamental question in development is how infants come to realize that speech and gestures are means for communication, allowing one person to transfer information to another. I'll present a series of studies in which we examine how infants evaluate the success of communicative interactions between a sender and receiver from a third-party perspective. Before they produce or comprehend many words or gestures, preverbal infants have some understanding of how they are used by others. This early communicative competence may provide infants with a channel for learning from others and lay a foundation for our social and cultural life as humans.

October 14 — David Rosenbaum (Psychology, Penn State)

Title: Putting Thought Into Action
Abstract: For your thoughts to be useful, they must be enacted. This is true even for mundane thoughts like those for getting up out of your desk chair, leaving your office, going to the room where this talk will be given, making your way to your seat, and settling in to hear about research on the planning and control of everyday actions. The research to be described will draw on evidence from neurophysiology, behavioral science (human and non-human), and computational modeling. A view that all these lines of evidence support is that goal postures are specified before movements are planned and performed. Motor control, you will hear, is more cognitively rich than some have realized.

October 21 — Boaz Keysar (Psychology, University of Chicago)

Title: Thinking in a Foreign Language
Abstract: We explore how the use of a foreign tongue affects the nature of judgment, decision and choice. In general, there is evidence that a foreign tongue is less emotionally anchored than a native tongue. We therefore hypothesize that decisions made in a foreign language are more muted emotionally. We show that as a result, the use of a foreign tongue reduces or eliminates certain judgmental biases. We also show that when choice could benefit from an emotional reaction, a foreign tongue reduces such benefit. These results add new theoretical perspective to considerations of language and thought, and they have important implications for millions of people who live and work while using a language that is not their native tongue.

November 8, 9, & 10 — The Maryland Lectures: Jacques Mehler (Cognitive Neuroscience, SISSA, Italy) — in the Maryland Room, Marie Mount, 3-6 pm.  

Details obtainable from the Department of Linguistics.

November 18 — Gergely Csibra (Cognitive Development Center, Central European University)

Title: What do human infants expect when adults communicate to them?
Abstract: While social learning and communication are both widespread in non-human animals, social learning by communication is probably human specific. Humans can and do transmit generic knowledge to each other about animal and artifact kinds, conventional behaviors to be used in specific situations, arbitrary referential symbols, cognitively opaque skills, and know-how embedded in means-end actions. These kinds of cultural contents can be transmitted by either linguistic communication or nonverbal demonstrations, and such types of knowledge transmission contribute to the stability of cultural forms across generations.
    In a series of studies, we have shown that human infants are prepared to be at the receptive side of such communicative knowledge transfer, which, together with adults' inclination to pass on their knowledge to the next generation, constitute a system of 'natural pedagogy' in humans. This talk will provide an overview of recent counterintuitive findings that suggest that human infants process the same information differently when it is presented to them by ostensive communication or outside a communicative context. When toddlers observe an individual expressing emotional attitudes towards objects, they attribute the corresponding preferences to her, but not to others. However, when these attitude expressions are performed for them, they generalize the corresponding preferences to other people. Even younger infants tend to encode kind-relevant properties, like shape and color, of objects at the expense of ignoring their episodic properties, like their location and numerosity, when the objects deictically referred by a communicator. We have also found that infants represent artifacts in terms of their demonstrated function, but only if this demonstration occurs in a communicative context. Infants are also more likely to categorize objects on the basis of communicated, as opposed to simply observed, information.
    These results suggest that communicative contexts make infants search for potentially generalizable semantic information, as if they expected to learn something. These perceptual and cognitive biases allow human infants to pay special attention to, and learn from, potential teachers, and assist the acquisition of cultural knowledge in a uniquely human way: by communication.

December 2 — Piotr Winkielman (Psychology, UC San Diego)

Title:  Emotion, Embodiment, and Awareness
Abstract: Emotions influence cognition and behavior.  But how?  I will argue that emotional influence often involves some form of "embodiment" - an activation of somatosensory representation of emotion.  Specifically, I'll present studies showing that (i) perception and memory of emotional expressions recruit facial feedback mechanisms, (ii) thinking about abstract emotion concepts elicits somatosensory reactions, and (iii) financial and consumption decisions are influenced by emotion stimuli to the extent that these stimuli activate embodied responses.  However, I will also present evidence that some emotional tasks can be successfully accomplished without any somatosensory recruitments, and discuss general problems for a purely "embodied" view of emotional processing. Finally, I will offer evidence for a tricky possibility that emotion, even when represented in the embodiments and actions, can be unconscious, that is remain hidden from the phenomenological experience ("feeling").  All this enriches, but also challenges the "neo-Jamesian" views that tie emotional processing and emotional experience to embodiment.