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Elizabeth Spelke to Deliver Public Lecture at Janelia

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03/08/18 | Elizabeth Spelke to Deliver Public Lecture at Janelia

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Dr. Elizabeth Spelke from Harvard University will deliver the next Dialogues of Discovery lecture at Janelia. Spelke’s talk, “Objects and People: From Core Cognition to New Systems of Knowledge,” is on Wednesday, April 18 at 7:00 p.m. All Dialogues of Discovery lectures are free and open to the public, but tickets are required for admission.

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About the Talk

Young children rapidly develop a basic, commonsense understanding of how the world works.  Research on infants suggests that this understanding rests in part on ancient systems, shared by other animals. The behavioral and neural signatures of these systems suggest that infants have distinct ways of representing bodies and their motions, agents and their actions, social beings and their states of engagement, places and their distances and directions, object shapes and their skeletons, and approximate number. These core cognitive systems are innate, abstract, sharply limited, and opaque to intuition:  in young infants, they operate automatically with some independence from one another.  Infants’ knowledge grows, however, not only through learning capacities that animals share but also through a fast and flexible learning process that likely is unique to our species. The latter process composes new explicit concepts, organized into new systems of knowledge, by combining productively the concepts from core knowledge.  The compositional process is poorly understood but amenable to study, through coordinated interdisciplinary research. To illustrate, this talk will focus on infants' knowledge of objects, agents, and social beings, and on two new systems of concepts that emerge at the end of the first year:  concepts of objects as kinds whose forms afford specific functions for action, and concepts of people as social agents with unique but shareable action plans and perspectives on the world.

About Elizabeth Spelke

Spelke is the Marshall L. Berkman Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and an investigator at the NSF-MIT Center for Brains, Minds and Machines. Her laboratory focuses on the sources of uniquely human cognitive capacities, including capacities for formal mathematics, for constructing and using symbolic representations such as maps, for developing comprehensive taxonomies of objects, and for reasoning about other humans and their mental states.  She probes the sources of these capacities primarily through behavioral research on human infants and preschool children, focusing on the origins and development of their understanding of objects, actions, people, places, number, and geometry.  In collaboration with computational cognitive scientists, she aims to test computational models of infants' cognitive capacities.  In collaboration with economists, she has begun to take her research from the laboratory to the field, where randomized controlled experiments can serve to evaluate interventions, guided by research in cognitive science, that seek to enhance young children's learning.