Abstract: Mature human cognition is complex and variable, both across
contemporary cultures and over human history, but human cognitive
development proceeds in a more predictable pattern, especially in infants
and young children. Studies of infants’ cognitive abilities in non-social
domains (including object cognition, numerical cognition and spatial
cognition) shed light on the starting points for human cognitive
development. Together with studies of these cognitive abilities in other
animals, at other ages, and with other methods from the cognitive and brain
sciences, this research suggests deep properties of physical and
mathematical reasoning in older children and adults. Here I ask whether
studies of infants can bring similar insights into human social cognition.
Do the complex social inferences and intuitions of adults develop from, and
build on, simpler systems that are functional in infants? If so, what are
the properties of these systems, and what roles do they play in the richer
social reasoning that emerges later in development? Recent studies of human
infants, using simple behavioral methods, suggest that the answers to these
questions may lie within reach. I describe some new findings and call for a
multi-species, multi-leveled search for the core mechanisms by which humans
navigate the social world.

About the Speaker:

Elizabeth Spelke received her A.B. from Radcliffe College and her Ph.D.
from Cornell University, where she studied cognitive psychology with Ulric
Neisser and perception and developmental psychology with Eleanor J. Gibson.
She taught in the Psychology Departments of the University of Pennsylvania
and Cornell University, and in the Department of Brain and Cognitive
Sciences at MIT, before joining the Department of Psychology at Harvard,
where she now directs the Laboratory for Developmental Studies. Dr. Spelke
has received numerous prestigious awards: the William James Award, American
Psychological Society, 2000; the Distinguished Scientific Contribution
Award, the American Psychological Association, 2000; America’s Best in
Science and Medicine, Time Magazine, 2001; National Academy of Sciences
Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, 2014. Over her career,
Spelke has probed the origins, development and nature of knowledge of
objects, actions, number, geometry, persons and social relationships
through behavioral studies of human adults, children, and especially
infants. She seeks to shed light on cognitive capacities that are universal
across human cultures, early emerging in human development, and fundamental
to the unique cognitive achievements of human adults. To foster
investigations of cognition at multiple levels, her research seeks to
elucidate aspects of human cognition that depend on ancient mechanisms and
that therefore can be studied in model animals. To shed light on our
species’ unique cognitive achievements, including mastery of systems of formal mathematics, her research also probes the processes that give rise to new concepts over the course of children’s cognitive development.

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