Cognitive Science Colloquium

Spring 2012

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


January 26 Noam Chomsky (Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT) — Humanities Dean's Lecture Series: 4.30 pm, Colony Ballroom, Stamp.

Title: Language, Mind, and Body: A personal view

February 16 Andrew Nevins (Linguistics, University College London)

Title: Underlearning
Abstract: We use experimental methodology to demonstrate from two separate domains (learning segmental phonology in Turkish and learning inflectional morphology in Romance) that not every pattern in a language, even if statistically robust or exceptionless, is actually learned by speakers: unnatural patterns are underlearned, suggesting that humans may bring formal and substantive biases to the task of forming grammatical generalisations.

February 23 —  Elissa Newport (Brain and Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester)

Title: Statistical language learning: Computational and maturational constraints
In recent years a number of problems in the brain and cognitive sciences have been addressed through statistical approaches, hypothesizing that humans and animals learn or adapt to their perceptual environments by tuning themselves to the statistics of incoming stimulation.  Professor Newport will present her work on statistical language learning, showing that infants, young children, and adults can compute, online and with remarkable speed, how consistently sounds co-occur, how frequently words occur in similar contexts, and the like, and can utilize these statistics to find candidate words in a speech stream, discover grammatical categories, and acquire simple syntactic structure in miniature languages.  Her recent research has also shown that there are maturational changes in statistical learning, with children sharpening the statistics and producing a more systematic language than the one to which they are exposed.  These sharpening processes potentially explain why children acquire language (and other patterns) more effectively than adults, and also how systematic languages may emerge in communities where usages are varied and inconsistent.

March 8  — Ian Apperly (Psychology, University of Birmingham, UK)

Title: What is theory of mind? Concepts, cognitive processes and individual differences.
Abstract: More than thirty years of research has examined “theory of mind” in non-human animals, human infants, children and adults, and human brains. This work has led to many insights, but, if anything, the object of study has become less clear as the weight of evidence has increased. By turns, researchers conceptualise “theory of mind” as a set of concepts, a collection of cognitive processes, and an individual difference variable. I shall argue that these conceptions all have their virtues, but that it is unhelpful to confound them and probably unwise to try to investigate them all with the same narrow set of experimental tasks. Newly-emerging methods have great potential for advancing our understanding of “theory of mind”, all the more so if we refine our ideas about what we are studying, and why.

April 5 Malinda Carpenter (Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute, Leipzig)

Title: Social motivations in infants and young children:  Affiliation, alignment, and prosocial behavior
Humans may be unique among animals in our social motivations, for example in the extent to which we identify with and wish to align ourselves with our fellow group members.  I show here that these social motivations are already present in infancy and early childhood.  I present a series of studies on imitation, affiliation, and identification, which highlight young children’s connections with their social group and document their early preferential treatment of in- vs. out-group members.  A theme running through many of these studies is the prevalence of prosocial motivations in children as well, in particular their tendency to help others.  Thus I also take some time to discuss helping in young children, for example showing how eager children are to help others in general, but at the same time how children’s tendency to help can be increased further, and how selective children are regarding whom they help.  I conclude that strong social and prosocial motivations are seen already beginning in infancy.

April 12Albert Kim (Psychology and Neuroscience, Colorado)

Title: Understanding the semantic “stream” of combinatory language comprehension:  Evidence of pervasive, potent, and predictive semantic influences on sentence processing.
How does human language comprehension achieve its hallmark ability to construct an unbounded range of compositional meanings from a finite (though large) set of individual words?  My lab uses event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to investigate the neurocognitive processes serving on-line sentence comprehension. ERPs provide sensitivity to distinct neural processes with millisecond-level temporal resolution and a limited ability to resolve neuroanatomical sources. Recent findings in our lab and others’ indicate that semantic knowledge can drive combinatory interpretations somewhat independently of syntactic analysis, sometimes overwhelming opposing, unambiguous syntactic cues.  Our findings also indicate that semantic knowledge operates in a predictive manner, allowing semantic influences on the earliest aspects of the brain’s response to an incoming word, well within the initial ~200 msec of the onset of the visual stimulus during reading.  I will discuss the implications of these findings for psycholinguistic models, including classical syntax-first proposals and recent proposals that emphasize the contributions of semantic knowledge systems to the computation of combinatory language interpretation.

April 26 — Bradley Duchaine (Psychology, Dartmouth)

Title: Developmental prosopagnosia
Abstract: Developmental prosopagnosia is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by severe face recognition deficits in the presence of intact low-level vision and intellect. The condition provides a unique window to investigate a range of issues in face processing. In my talk, I'll discuss studies investigating its cognitive, neural, and genetic basis.

May 3 — Anders Ericsson (Psychology, Florida State University)

Title:  The Making of Expert Performance by Deliberate Practice: Where is the Evidence for Innate Talent ?
Abstract: The Greeks used the concept, techne, to refer to crafts and skills that were associated with creation of reliably superior products. Later on this concept was extended to include categories of less reliable performance in law and medicine. Subsequent efforts to develop expertise promoted extended experience, acquisition of knowledge, general ability (talent) and advanced schooling. Consistent with this general view it is often assumed that 10 years of professional experience changes people into experts. Recent research on expertise, however, is showing that most forms of experience, such as work, play, and social interactions, have surprisingly limited effects on improvement of performance. When experts’ performance is measured objectively, we find only limited improvement of performance as a function of increased experience. In fact, some professionals’ performance can even decrease with increased amount of experience. In stark contrast, research on the acquisition of expert performance demonstrates that focused appropriate training activities--deliberate practice--can lead to dramatic cumulative increases in performance and even change the most physical characteristics of the human body and brain with some exceptions, such as body size and height.
        In my talk I will discuss recent evidence on the effects of specific practice activities on objective performance and propose how everyday learning phenomena in schools, universities and the professions may be captured and analyzed in the laboratory and how findings about effective learning can be translated back into improved training environments that permit individuals to more effectively improve their performance in the original settings.