Cognitive Science Colloquium

Spring 2014

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

February 6 —  Joan Maling (Linguistics, NSF & Brandeis).

Title: Syntactic Change in Progress: The New Impersonal Construction in Icelandic
Abstract: The passive is one of the most thoroughly examined constructions in the world’s languages, across different theoretical and typological perspectives; yet there is often disagreement about category membership, particularly for constructions sometimes called “non-promotional” passives, which have no overt subject but govern an accusative object.  In this talk I will discuss a new impersonal construction which has arisen in Icelandic in recent decades and which is gaining ground. Data has been collected in two nation-wide surveys. This syntactic innovation is a system-internal change that is not the result of borrowing, nor the result of any phonological change or morphological weakening in the language. I argue that the categorical indeterminacy of the New Impersonal is a result of two distinct grammatical analyses of the construction among native speakers. Other cases of this kind across several genetically unrelated languages will also be discussed.

February 13 —  Gary Dell (Psychology & Linguistics, University of Illinois).          NOTE: This session to be held in Biology-Psychology (BPS) 1208).

Title: What Freud got Right About Speech Errors
Abstract: Most people associate Sigmund Freud with the assertion that speech errors reveal repressed thoughts, a claim that does not have a great deal of support. I will introduce some other things that Freud said about slips, showing that these, in contrast to the repression notion, do fit well with modern theories of language production. I will illustrate using an interactive two-step theory of lexical access during production, which has been used to understand aphasic speech error patterns.

February 20 — Gary Lupyan (Psychology, Wisconsin).                     NOTE: This session to be held in Biology-Psychology (BPS) 1208

Title: Is Human Cognition Language-Augmented Cognition?
Abstract: To what extent is human cognition augmented by language? Does language only enhance communication, with words acting as triggers for nonlinguistic concepts? Or does language play an active role in the very ability to construct and manipulate those concepts? I will present a series of experiments showing that language has pervasive and surprising effects on a range of cognitive abilities, such as learning new categories, deploying knowledge about familiar categories, and even basic perception: Hearing a word can literally change what one sees. I will conclude by discussing the “design features” of words that make them especially useful for constructing and manipulating mental representations.

March 6  — Fiery Cushman (Psychology, Brown).

Title: Why Learning Matters for Morality
Abstract: Humans use punishment and reward to modify each others' behavior, and we also learn from others' rewards and punishments.  This simple dynamic animates much of our moral psychology, and I explore two of its consequences in detail.  First, human punishment should be adapted to the contours and constraints of human learning.  This can explain a peculiar feature of our moral judgments that philosophers call "moral luck": The fact that accidental outcomes play a large role in determining punishment.  Second, the architecture of human learning should dictate when and how we choose to harm others. I borrow from current neurobiological models of reinforcement learning to understand why we deem some harmful actions impermissible and others permissible.  These case studies illustrate the role that learning systems play as a basic organizing principle in the moral domain.

April 3 — Kiley Hamlin (Psychology, University of British Columbia).

Title: The infantile origins of human moral cognition: studies with preverbal infants and toddlers
Abstract: How do humans come to have a “moral sense”? Are adults’ conceptions of which actions are right and which are wrong, of who is good and who is bad, who deserves praise and who deserves blame wholly the result of experiences like observing and interacting with others in one’s cultural environment and explicit teaching from parents, teachers, and religious leaders? Do all of the complexities in adult’s moral judgments reflect hard-won developmental change coupled with the emergence of advanced reasoning skills? This talk will explore evidence that, on the contrary, preverbal infants’ social preferences map surprisingly well onto adult moral intuitions. Within the first year of life, infants prefer those who help versus harm third parties, those who reward prosocial individuals and punish wrongdoers, and even privilege the intentions that drive actions over the outcomes they lead to. In the second year of life, toddlers direct their own helpful actions toward helpful individuals, and harmful actions toward harmful individuals. These results suggest that our adult moral sense is supported, at least in part, by innate mechanisms for sociomoral evaluation.

April 17 — Susan Goldin-Meadow (Psychology, University of Chicago).

Title: How our hands help us think
Abstract: When people talk, they gesture.  We now know that these gestures are  associated with learning.  They can index moments of cognitive instability and reflect thoughts not yet found in speech.  What I hope to do in this talk is raise the possibility that gesture might do more than just reflect learning––it might be involved in the learning process itself.  I consider two non-mutually exclusive possibilities:  the gestures that we see others produce might be able to change our thoughts; and the gestures that we ourselves produce might be able to change our thoughts. Finally, I explore the mechanisms responsible for gesture's effect on learning––how gesture works to change our minds.

May 1 — Elizabeth Kensinger (Psychology, Boston College).

Title: How emotion affects memory
Abstract: When we think about our past, many of the events that come to mind are those that triggered an emotional response.  This retrieval of a memory requires a series of processes to unfold: Information must be attended and encoded into memory, resist decay and interference over time, and be reactivated when the appropriate retrieval cue is processed.  In this talk, I will discuss how the arousal (physiological response or feeling of excitation) and valence (pleasure or displeasure) of an event can affect the likelihood that each of these processes unfolds to give rise to memory.

May 8 — Aniruddh Patel (Psychology, Tufts).                 NOTE: This session to be held in Biology-Psychology (BPS) 1208

Title: The evolution of human musicality: cross-species studies
Abstract: How can we study the biological evolution of the human capacity for music?  Over the past century, theories of music’s origins have abounded, with little data to constrain them.  One prominent debate has centered on the issue of adaptation: were human bodies and brains specifically shaped for musical behaviors by natural selection, or did music (like reading and writing) arise as a human creation without impetus from biology?  This debate has gone on since Darwin’s time and will likely be with us for many years to come.  In this talk I argue for a different approach to studying the evolution of our musical abilities, based on empirical research.  I will discuss comparative studies with birds aimed at understanding the evolutionary history of human melodic and rhythmic processing.  One set of studies focuses on our ability to recognize melodies when they are shifted up or down in pitch (transposed).  The other set of studies focuses on our capacity to perceive a beat in music and move in synchrony with it.  The results of these studies suggest that these two aspects of music processing likely involve cognitive and neural specializations which have distinct evolutionary histories.