Cognitive Science Colloquium

Fall 2011

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


September 8 — Paul Smolensky (Cognitive Science, Johns Hopkins)

Title: Unifying the mind/brain: Neural quantization and mental optimization
I will present a general cognitive architecture which formalizes computational relations between the mind and the brain. Principles of neural computation yield an emergent property that constitutes a new principle of mental organization: mental processes compute representations that are optimal. Representations in a given cognitive component are optimal with respect to ‘soft’ constraints that characterize the world as cognized in that component. In addition to optimization, neural computation provides another key process: quantization. This process yields a fundamental property of higher cognition: mental representations are discrete, combinatorial structures. The architecture is illustrated in a domain particularly challenging for mental/neural integration: grammar.

September 15 — Susan Carey (Psychology, Harvard University)

Title: The Origin of Concepts:  a Case Study of Natural  Number

Abstract: A theory of conceptual development must specify the innate representational primitives, must characterize the ways in which the initial state differs from the adult state, and must characterize the processes through which one is transformed into the other. I will defend three theses. With respect to the initial state, the innate stock of primitives is not limited to sensory, perceptual, or sensory-motor representations; rather, there are also innate conceptual representations. With respect to developmental change, conceptual development consists of episodes of qualitative change, resulting in systems of representation that are more powerful than, and sometimes incommensurable with, those from which they were built. With respect to a learning mechanism that achieves conceptual discontinuity, I offer Quinian bootstrapping. I will illustrate these theses with a case study of the origin of concepts of natural number.

September 22  — Jonathan Haidt (Psychology, University of Virginia)

Title: The Rationalist Delusion in Moral Psychology and (New) Atheism
Abstract: Many philosophers, psychologists, and lay people think that moral reasoning is a reliable way to find moral truth.  I will survey evidence indicating that reasoning evolved and is well-designed to serve social functions such as reputation management and navigation within a complex world of accountability constraints.  To maintain that moral reasoning is (or should be) more important or more trusted than moral intuition, in the absence of evidence that people can reason dispassionately about moral issues, meets Webster’s definition of a delusion: a false conception and persistent belief unconquerable by reason in something that has no existence in fact. I will show how rationalism has led the “new atheists” astray, causing them to misconstrue religion as a set of false beliefs about supernatural agents. I will present social intuitionism as an alternative to rationalism.

October 13 — Jonathan Schooler (Psychology, UC Santa Barbara)

Title: Reconsidering the mind from the inside out
Abstract: Historically treatments of the mind have taken a third person perspective that has led to significant conceptual, methodological, and epistemological oversights.   This talk will explore insights that can be gained when the mind is considered from a first person (i.e inside out) perspective.  Methodologically, such an approach leads to the development and refinement of self report measures that when triangulated with behavioral and neuro-cognitive measures can provide valid insight into internal mental states.   Conceptually, this approach reveals the importance of mind-wandering which reflects a large portion of our mental activity, and has important implications for performance, default brain activity, and the nature of self awareness.  Epistemologically, this approach suggests fundamental limitations to the current scientific approach that at present offers no way of accounting for what the first person perspective reveals to be the most self-evident aspects of existence.

October 27 — Tom Griffiths (Psychology, UC Berkeley)

Title: Using probabilistic models of cognition to identify human inductive biases
Abstract: People are remarkably good at acquiring complex knowledge from limited data, as is required in learning causal relationships, categories, or aspects of language. Successfully solving inductive problems of this kind requires having good "inductive biases" -- constraints that guide inductive inference. Viewed abstractly, understanding human learning requires identifying these inductive biases and exploring their origins. I will argue that probabilistic models of cognition provide a framework that can facilitate this project, giving a transparent characterization of the inductive biases of ideal learners. I will outline how probabilistic models are traditionally used to solve this problem, and then present a new approach that uses a mathematical analysis of the effects of cultural transmission as the basis for an experimental method that magnifies the effects of inductive biases.

November 3 — Joshua Greene (Psychology, Harvard University)

Title: Integrative Moral Cognition
Abstract: In recent years, moral psychologists have attempted to answer two big questions:  What are the respective roles of intuition and reasoning in moral judgment?  Are moral judgments made by a dedicated moral faculty, or by one or more domain-general processes?  The dual-process theory of moral judgment, now a decade old, is an answer to the first question.  I’ll provide an overview and update on the evidence supporting it.  The dual-process theory, by explaining moral judgment in terms of competing processes, provides a framework within which one can examine a range of influences on moral judgment. I’ll describe experiments implicating the respective influences of explicit reasoning, cognitive control, visual imagery, action representations, and domain-general valuation mechanisms. These results indicate that moral judgment is not, in general, the product of a dedicated moral faculty.  Rather, moral judgments are the integrative products of diverse cognitive systems that are neither specifically dedicated to, nor designed for, moral judgment.  I’ll consider some of the potential normative implications of this view of the moral brain.

November 10 — Jesse Prinz (Philosophy, CUNY Graduate School)

Title:  Consciousness, Attention, and Levels of Explanation
Abstract: A theory of consciousness must specify which mental states can be conscious and the conditions under which they become conscious.  Recent research in psychology and neuroscience can settle both of these questions.  Evidence strongly suggests that consciousness arises at a specific stage of processing in our perceptual systems, and it arises when and only when we are paying attention.  Developing these proposals requires an account of what attention is, both psychologically and biologically.  The talk presents a account of how attention changes cellular activity within perceptual hierarchies, and replies to recent experiments which purport to show that attention and consciousness are dissociable.  The theory is also compared to others in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience.

November 16, 17, & 18 — The Maryland Lectures (Department of Linguistics): Mark Lieberman (Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania). Time and place to be arranged.  

December 8 —  Peter Vishton (Psychology, William and Mary)

Title:  Action Controls Perception Just As Perception Controls Action:  Evidence from Infant and Adult Looking, Judging, Reaching, and Driving
Abstract: My research has focused on the relationship between perception, cognition, and action control. It is commonly understood that we gather information from the environment and use it to intelligently guide our behaviors. My work has suggested that the control flows in the opposite direction as well; when we choose to engage in a particular type of behavior, our perceptual and cognitive systems change, in fundamental ways, to better mediate those actions. As the response demands of a task behavior are altered, even when the overt informational demands of the task remain the same, adult experimental participants become selectively sensitive to certain sources of information and remarkably insensitive to others. Related work with infants suggests that when they engage in active reaching behaviors, rather than simpler looking behaviors, a separate system of knowledge is recruited to interpret the surrounding world. Such results indicate a need for theories of mental and neural processing that are able to account for rapid, fundamental shifts in the structure of human cognition and perception.