Cognitive Science Colloquium

Fall 2016

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

September 8 — Jonathan Cohen (Psychology & Neuroscience, Princeton).

Title: Capacity Constraints in Cognitive Control:  Toward a Rational Explanation
Abstract: The capacity for cognitive control, one of the defining characteristics of human cognition, is also remarkably limited.  Typically, people cannot engage in more than a few — and sometimes only a single — control-demanding task at once. Limited capacity was a defining element in the earliest conceptualizations of cognitive control, it remains one of the most widely accepted axioms of cognitive psychology, and is even the basis for some laws (e.g., against the use of mobile devices while driving).  It also plays a central role in normative (e.g., “bounded rationality”) models of cognitive control, which assume that the capacity limitation imposes an opportunity cost on the allocation of control, and that control policies are chosen so as to optimize payoff relative to this cost (e.g., the Expected Value of Control theory).  Remarkably, however, the reason that the capacity for control is limited remains a mystery.  Structural and/or metabolic constraints are commonly, if tacitly, assumed reasons.  However, these seem unlikely, given the vast resources available to the human brain.  In this talk, I will present an alternative account, that offers a computational explanation for the capacity constraints on cognitive control.  This account suggests that constraints on controlled processing reflect an inherent tradeoff between a bias in learning for the development of efficient, and generalizable representations, and the performance efficiency afforded by dedicated representations that support parallel processing.  I will describe theoretical results (involving simulations and analysis) in support of these ideas, and the beginnings of an empirical line of research designed to test them.

September 22 — Daniel Dennett (Philosophy & Cognitive Studies, Tufts). — Note: in Physics 1412 (which is in the one-story Physics Lecture Halls at the extreme north end of the Physics Building, at the junction of Regents Drive and Fieldhouse Drive).

Title: Consciousness: Whose user-illusion is it?

Abstract: My 1991 proposal (in Consciousness Explained) that human consciousness be seen as a ‘user illusion’ met with incredulity in many quarters, in part because many people were unwilling or unable to abandon the idea of the primacy of the "first-person perspective”: (“How could I be wrong about my own conscious states?”)  In the meantime, accumulating evidence and advances in theory have prepared the ground for a revival of this initially counterintuitive view, and a number of researchers are homing in on different versions of it.

October 6 — Paul Bloom (Psychology, Yale).

Title: Against empathy
Abstract: Many psychologists, philosophers, and laypeople believe that empathy is necessary for moral judgment and moral action—the only problem with empathy is that we sometimes don’t have enough of it. Drawing on research into psychopathy, criminal behavior, charitable giving, infant cognition, cognitive neuroscience, and Buddhist meditation practices, I’ll argue that this is mistaken. Empathy is a poor moral guide. It is biased, short-sighted, and innumerate—we should try to do without it. We are much better off, in both public policy and intimate relationships, drawing upon a combination of reason and distanced compassion. 

October 20 — Elizabeth Phelps (Psychology & Neuroscience, NYU).

Title: Emotion and Decision Making
Abstract: Although the prevalent view of emotion and decision making is derived from the notion that there are dual systems of emotion and reason, a modulatory relationship more accurately reflects the current research in affective neuroscience and neuroeconomics. Studies show two potential mechanisms for affect's modulation of the computation of subjective value and decisions: 1) Incidental affective states may carry over to the assessment of subjective value for an unrelated decision, and 2) the emotional reaction to the choice itself may be integral to the value calculation. In this talk, I will review recent research from my lab characterizing the modulatory relationship be between affect and decisions. This research suggests that the neural mechanisms mediating the relation between affect and choice vary depending on which affective component is engaged and which decision variables are assessed.  This research suggests that a detailed and nuanced understanding of emotion and decision making requires characterizing the multiple modulatory neural circuits underlying the different means by which emotion and affect can influence choices.

November 3 — David Rand (Psychology, Economics, & Management, Yale).

Title: Human cooperation
Abstract: Cooperation, where people pay costs to benefit others, is central to successful human societies. But why are people willing to incur the individual costs involved in cooperating? One set of explanations involves long-term self-interest: if I cooperate with you today, that may make you (or others who find out about my cooperation) more likely to cooperate with me in the future. But people also cooperate even such future consequences are not enough to make cooperation pay off. I explore such "pure" cooperation from using the dual-process perspective from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, which contrasts cognitive processes that are fast and automatic but inflexible (“intuitive” processes) with those that are effortful and controlled but flexible (“deliberative” processes). I propose the "Social Heuristics Hypothesis" whereby people internalize typically successful behaviors as intuitive heuristics for social interaction. Because most of our important interactions (e.g. those with our co-workers, friends, and family) are long-term rather than anonymous and one-shot, I argue that we intuitively apply a ‘future consequences’ heuristic: our intuitions support strategies which are payoff-maximizing in the presence of future consequences. Deliberation, on the other hand, shifts us towards behavior that is payoff-maximizing in the specific situation at hand. I will present behavioral data from economic game experiments that supports this account: meta-analysis of thousands of participants shows that inducing subjects to carefully deliberate undermines cooperation in 1-shot games (where non-cooperation is payoff-maximizing), but has no effect in games where it can be payoff-maximizing to cooperate.
[For details, see]

November 10 — Rochelle Newman (Hearing and Speech Sciences, University of Maryland).

Title: Learning language from difficult listening situations: How children process poor-quality speech signals
Abstract: Children learn language from hearing it around them, but much of the language they hear isn’t perfectly clear. Some children hear degraded speech signals through a cochlear implant; others may hear speech from speakers with unfamiliar accents. And nearly all children hear a great deal of their language input in the presence of background noise, including competing speech.

Recent work suggests that children are affected by background noise much more than are adults, limiting the extent to which they can benefit from the language input they receive, and leading to a catch-22: young children who are still trying to learn language have a greater need for understanding speech in noise, but are simultaneously less equipped to do so. Similarly, these children are particularly in need of high-quality speech signals; yet at least for some children, the speech they hear can be quite degraded. I will be discussing recent findings on toddler’s ability to recognize known words and learn new ones from signals that are either degraded (as through a cochlear implant), or occur in the presence of multiple people talking simultaneously.

November 16, 17, & 18 — Paul Smolensky (Cognitive Science, Johns Hopkins): Baggett Lectures, organized by the Department of Linguistics.

Note: the visit of  Stella Lourenco (Psychology, Emory University), originally announced for December 1, has been cancelled.

Note: the visit of Sarah Shomstein (Psychology, George Washington University), more recently scheduled for December 8, has also been cancelled.