Cognitive Science Colloquium

Spring 2011

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


NOTE - from March 3 to the end of the semester all meetings will take place in Bio-Psych 1208. (This is due to information lost when the University transitioned to a new online calendar system.)


February 3 Frank Keil (Psychology, Yale)

Title: The Feasibility of Folk Science
Abstract: Humans of all ages seem to show a strong interest in the workings of both the natural and artificial worlds around them. This interest, plus clear signs of attention to causal relations, leads to the inference that they should have well articulated intuitive theories and explanations of much that they encounter. Yet, folk scientific understandings are difficult to unpack in detail. Even the vast majority of college educated adults, let alone children, have highly impoverished understandings when assessed as mechanistic knowledge. A series of studies document these gaps but then go on to illustrate other ways in which even preverbal children have surprisingly sophisticated senses of causal patterns. These developmental results in turn suggest different ways to construe what it means to have folk scientific understanding at any age and what it means for a folk science to be cognitively feasible.

February 24Shaun Nichols (Philosophy, Arizona)

Title: On the Psychological Origins of Dualism: Dual-Process Cognition and the Explanatory Gap
Abstract: Consciousness often presents itself as a problem for materialists because no matter which physical explanation we consider, there seems to remain something about conscious experience that hasn't been fully explained. This gives rise to an apparent explanatory gap. The explanatory gulf between the physical and the conscious is reflected in the broader population, in which dualistic intuitions abound. Drawing on recent empirical evidence, this essay presents a dual-process cognitive model of consciousness attribution. This dual-process model, we suggest, provides an important part of the explanation for why dualism is so attractive and the explanatory gap so vexing.

March 3  — Rebecca Saxe (Pscyhology, MIT)

Title: How the Brain Invents the Mind
Abstract: When we look at other people, the features visible on the outside are only a small part of what we see. We are much more interested in seeing, or inferring, what's going on inside: other people's thoughts, beliefs and desires. If a person checks her watch, is she uncertain about the time, late for an appointment, or bored with the conversation? If a person shoots his friend on a hunting trip, did he intend revenge or just mistake his friend for a partridge? One of the most amazing discoveries of recent human cognitive neuroscience is that humans use a specific group of brain regions for thinking about other people, and their thoughts. I will discuss the function, development and behavioral relevance of this neural system, focusing especially on one brain region, the right temporo-parietal junction.

March 10 Sandra Waxman (Psychology, Northwestern)

Title: Words and Things: Linking Infants' Early Conceptual and Linguistic Abilities
To learn the meaning of a word, infants must set their sights in two distinct directions. Facing the conceptual domain, they must identify concepts that capture the various relations among the objects and events that they encounter. Facing the linguistic domain, they must cull words and phrases from the melody of the human language in which they are immersed. Findings from our laboratory, among others, have revealed that even before they begin to speak, infants’ advances in each of these domains are powerfully linked. I will review recent evidence for these early links, focusing first on infants on the threshold of word learning and then moving on to present new evidence from infants as young as 3- and 4-months of age.

April 14Sarah-Jane Leslie (Philosophy, Princeton) — in Bio-Psych 1208

Title: Generics and Generalization
Generics are sentences such as "tigers are striped" and "ravens are black". They are truth-conditionally complex: e.g. "ducks lay eggs" is judged true while "ducks are female" is rejected as false, despite the fact that only female ducks lay eggs. Similarly, "mosquitoes carry malaria" is accepted but "books are paperbacks" is rejected, yet over 80% books are paperbacks, while less than 1% of mosquitoes carry malaria. Despite their seeming complexity, I argue that generics give voice to cognitively primitive generalizations, while quantified statements give voice to more cognitively sophisticated and taxing ones. Further, the puzzling truth-conditional behavior of generics can be explained by an empirically plausible characterization of these primitive generalizations. I present recent experimental evidence in support of these hypotheses.

April 21 Nicole Rust (Psychology, UPenn) — in Bio-Psych 1208. [Note: this colloquium is coordinated with the NACS colloquium on April 22, at which the speaker will be Alan Stocker from UPenn.]

Title: Deciphering the Neural Representation of Objects Using Population-Based Approaches
While popular accounts suggest that neurons at the highest stages of the visual system are selective for particular objects, the average neuron at the highest stage of purely visual processing, inferotemporal (IT) cortex, is in fact broadly tuned for natural images.  Exactly how the IT population represents objects remains little-understood.  In this talk, I will begin by presenting evidence that IT neurons are in fact more selective for conjunctions of visual features than neurons at earlier stages.  However, these increases in selectivity are offset by increases in invariance to identity-preserving transformations (e.g. shifting, scaling) of those features such that IT neurons erroneously appear to be no more selective than neurons at earlier stages of visual processing (e.g. V4).  Moreover, these results suggest that the neural representation of objects is highly distributed across the IT population.  In the second portion of the talk, I will describe how we use population-based approaches to understand the nature of the object representation in IT.  As time permits, I will also explain how IT object representations are modulated by cognitive factors, such as the act of searching for a particular object (such as a face in a crowd).

April 28 — Josep Call (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) —  in Bio-Psych 1208

Title: Perspective-Taking in Great Apes
Abstract: Being able to analyze an object or event from different perspectives is a major achievement of human cognition.  Studies on children and our closest primate living relatives, the great apes, can inform us about the development and evolution of this cognitive ability.  In this talk, I will explore how apes (and children) deal with physical and social problems in the following three situations:  when their own perspective differs from that of others, when they possess conflicting perspectives on a particular object, and when they face unreliable information.  To illustrate each of these situations, I will present data on social competition and spatial encoding, the appearance-reality distinction, and meta-memory.

May 5 — Joe Henrich (Psychology & Economics, University of British Columbia) — in Bio-Psych 1208

Title:  Culture-Gene Coevolution, Norm-Psychology, and the Emergence of Human Prosociality
Abstract: Humans are unique in being both heavily dependent on social learning and highly cooperative. Research over the last thirty years examining the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution suggests that these two features—culture and cooperation—are deeply intertwined. While the consideration of such culture-gene coevolutionary processes are taken seriously for understanding many aspects of the human phenotype, and represent the leading view in some cases, the origins of human cooperation and ultra-sociality remain a flashpoint. Drawing on evolutionary modeling, cross-cultural and cross-species experiments, laboratory studies of social learning, and quantitative ethnographic work on social life in small-scale societies, I argue that cultural evolution, driven by competition among social groups, has shaped human genetic evolution and the emergence of our unique social psychology. This approach allows us to tackle otherwise puzzling aspects of human prosociality, institutions, religion and social norms, as well as giving us a purchase to grapple with the broadest patterns in human history.