Cognitive Science Colloquium

Spring 2018

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

January 25 —  Luca Bonatti (Brain & Cognition, Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona)

Title: Precursors of logical reasoning in preverbal infants
Abstract: Infants possess remarkable capacities to process complex events and rationally modify hypotheses about them facing inconsistent evidence. These capacities suggest the existence of elementary logical representations for framing and pruning hypotheses, independent of natural language.  However, little is known about infants' abilities to reason, let alone reason logically. I will present evidence that when they witness a scene not previously experienced, infants reason about it by applying basic logical principles. I will argue that such inferences are used to build strategies to inspect the scenes and make inferences to enrich their knowledge. I will present data about the behavioral correlates of this inferential processes in infants and adults, focusing on the case of disjunctive reasoning.

February 8 —  Randy Gallistel (Center for Cognitive Science, Rutgers) – Note: in BPS 1208

Title: The Perception of Probability
Abstract: Human and non-human animals estimate the probabilities of events spread out in time. They do so on the basis of a record in memory of the sequence of events, not by the event-by-event updating of the estimate. The current estimate of the probability is the byproduct of the construction of a hierarchical stochastic model for the event sequence. The model enables efficient encoding of the sequence (minimizing memory demands) and it enables nearly optimal prediction (The Minimum Description Length Principle). The estimates are generally close to those of an ideal observer over the full range of probabilities. Changes are quickly detected. Human subjects, at least, have second thoughts about their most recently detected change, revising their opinion in the light of subsequent data, thereby retroactively correcting for the effects of garden path sequences on their model. Their detection of changes is affected by their estimate of the probability of such changes, as it should be. Thus, a sophisticated mechanism for the perception of probability joins the mechanisms for the perception of other abstractions, such as duration, distance, direction, and numerosity, as a foundational and evolutionarily ancient brain mechanism.

February 15 — Tecumseh Fitch (Cognitive Biology, Vienna).

Title: A Comparative Biological Approach to Language Evolution: People are Animals Too

Abstract:  Since the ancient Greeks there has been a tension between those who emphasize the similarities between humans and animals, and those who focus on the differences. In this talk I show that modern biology validates, and indeed requires, both perspectives, arguing that human cognition is based on broadly shared building blocks, but also includes several distinctive cognitive characteristics that are either rare or non-existent in non-human animals.  I illustrate this perspective with examples from color vision and animal tool use, before turning to human language, where shared and exclusive components both play important roles.

March 8 — Kristina Olson (Psychology, University of Washington)

Title: When Sex and Gender Collide
Abstract: Announced on our day of birth or even months before, sex and gender are perhaps the most central social categories that affect our lives regardless of the society into which we are born. While the study of how we come to understand our own gender and the influence gender has on our lives has been central to the study of human psychology for decades, nearly all research to date has focused on people who experience “typical” gender identity (gender identity that aligns with one's sex).  In this talk, I will discuss our recent work exploring gender development and mental health in an increasingly visible group of children—transgender and gender nonconforming youth—for whom gender and sex diverge considerably. I will explore how studying gender diverse children enhances our understanding of gender more broadly and how basic social cognitive tasks can be useful in addressing ongoing debates about gender diverse children.

March 15 —  Judit Gervain (Perception Lab, CNRS, Paris)

Title: The role of prenatal experience in early speech processing and language acquisition
Abstract: Hearing is operational from the third trimester of gestation. Infants thus first experience language in the womb. In this talk I will present a series of near-infrared spectroscopy experiments with newborns suggesting that this prenatal experience may already shape how infants perceive and start learning about language. As maternal tissues act as low-pass filters, fetuses mainly experience the prosody of speech, fine details necessary for the identification of words are mostly suppressed. I will show that at birth infants already recognize the prosodic properties of the language(s) they heard in utero, they weigh prosody as a strong cue to package the speech stream into relevant units. I will link this early prosodic experience to theories of prosodic bootstrapping assumed to operate later during language acquisition.

April 5 —  Alison Preston (Psychology, University of Texas)

Title: Hippocampal-prefrontal mechanisms supporting knowledge acquisition across development
Abstract: Everyday behaviors require a high degree of flexibility, in which prior experience is applied to inform behavior in new situations. Such flexibility is thought to be supported by memory integration, a process whereby related experiences become interconnected in the brain through recruitment of overlapping neuronal populations. In this talk, I will discuss our work demonstrating that memory integration relies on hippocampal–prefrontal circuitry and allows for acquisition of new knowledge beyond what we directly experience. I will show how such knowledge is flexibly deployed to promote new learning and higher-level cognitive functions such as reasoning and concept formation. I will also discuss developmental data exploring the relationship between maturation of hippocampal-prefrontal circuitry and the emergence of reasoning ability.  I will show that children and adolescents are less likely to link new experiences to their existing memories, limiting their ability to reason about the relationships among distinct events.


April 12 — Tor Wager (Neuroscience, University of Colorado) – Note: in BPS 1208


Title: Neuroimaging of pain and distress: from biomarkers to brain representation
Abstract: Pain and emotional distress are realities that affect us all. Preventing, resolving, and sometimes accepting pain and distress motivates many human endeavors, ranging from spiritual practices to medical interventions. Understanding the brain basis of pain and emotion could transform how we understand these fundamental facets of human life, but currently, there are no human brain measures adequate for determining whether one is angry or sad, whether pain is physical or emotional, or whether one is feeling pain that is intense or mild. In this talk, I describe a series of studies aimed at beginning to address these questions. Combining functional neuroimaging with machine learning techniques, we have developed brain markers capable of indicating the intensity of pain and negative emotion in individual participants with > 90% accuracy, with no prior knowledge of an individual's experience. In addition to their use as markers, such maps can provide insight into the structure of the neurophysiological representations underlying pain and distress. Our findings to date suggest that specific types of aversive experiences are encoded in separate, population-based patterns that are co-localized in similar gross anatomical circuits. These studies are part of a transformational shift in how neuroimaging data is being used, from early 'blob-based' brain-mapping studies to the development of predictive maps with tangible translational potential. They show that as the field progresses, we may be able to map specific types of subjective experience to specific brain circuits. This endeavor enables cross-species mapping of mechanisms, translational work on treatment development, and new ways of understanding and relieving human suffering.