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Wednesday, February 28th

Ben Wilson

Institute of Neuroscience
Newcastle University Medical School

A Comparative Approach to Studying Language Evolution: Insights from Structured Sequence Learning in Humans and Other Animals

Human language is a unique method of communication within the animal kingdom. This presents challenges in understanding how the cognitive and neurobiological systems that support it might have evolved. Structured sequence processing tasks allow us to study statistical learning abilities that are relevant to many areas of cognition, including language. Moreover, many of these tasks can be studied in both humans and nonhuman animals. I will summarise recent comparative behavioural and neuroimaging studies using sequence learning tasks in humans and other animals. This research suggests that certain cognitive processes and neural substrates, which may be relevant for language in humans, appear to be evolutionarily conserved and shared by extant nonhuman primates. Alongside these cross-species similarities there is also evidence for human specialisations, which helps to further illuminate how language may have evolved. I will conclude by discussing outstanding questions and future research directions that might better help us understand the evolution of these abilities.

February 9, 2018

Julia L Evans, PhD

University of Texas, Dallas
University of Texas, Dallas
Professor, School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Director, Child Language and Cognitive Processes Lab

Poles, Bowls and Dinosaur Bones: How Atypical Lexical Representations May Be Derailing Sentence Comprehension for Children with Specific Language Impairment

Rumelhart (1979) argued that comprehension, like perception, should be likened to Hebb’s (1949) paleontologist, who uses his or her beliefs and knowledge about dinosaurs in conjunction with the clues provided by the available bone fragments to construct a full-fledged model of the original. In this talk, I explore studies that suggest that, while real world knowledge is intact in children with SLI, deficits at the lexical level (the bone fragments) may be profoundly influencing sentence comprehension performance in children with SLI.

Friday, January 26, 2018

C.R. Gallistel, PhD

Rutgers University
Behavioral and Systems
Cognitive Psychology
Distinguished Professor Emeritus

How the Brain Really Works

It is generally assumed that the brain’s computational capacities derive mostly from the structure of neural circuits—how it is wired—and from process(es) that rewire circuits in response to experience. The computationally relevant properties ascribed to the neuron itself have not changed in more than a century: it is a leaky integrator with a threshold on its output (Sherrington, 1906). The concepts at the core of molecular biology were undreamed of in Sherrington’s philosophy. They have transformed biological thinking in the last half century. But they play little role in theorizing about how nervous tissue computes. The possibility that the neuron is a full-blown computing machine in its own right, able to store acquired information and to perform complex computations on it, has barely been bruited. I urge us to consider it.

My reasons are: 1) The hypothesis that acquired information is stored in altered synapses is a conceptual dead end. In more than a century, no one has explained even in principle how altered synapses can carry information forward in time in a computationally accessible form. 2) It is easy to suggest several different models for how molecules known to exist inside cells can carry acquired information in a computationally accessible form. 3) The logic gates out of which all computation may be built are known to be implemented at the molecular level inside cells. 4) Implementing memory and computation at the molecular level increases the speed (operations/s), energy efficiency (operations/J), and spatial efficiency (bits/m3) of computation and memory by many orders of magnitude. 5) Recent experimental findings strongly suggest that (at least some) memory resides inside the neuron.

February 5, 2016

Richard Krauzulis, PhD

National Eye Institute, NIH

New perspectives on the brain mechanisms of attention

William James famously said, “Everyone knows what attention is.” We also know a lot about how the brain controls attention: most evidence points to a network of areas in the cerebral cortex, with frontal and parietal cortex regulating limited resources available in the sensory areas of cortex. However, this is not the complete picture. Subcortical brain regions also play a role in attention; in this talk I will explain how our study of a particular subcortical brain region, the superior colliculus, has led us to a very different view of attention. We have found that not only does the superior colliculus play a crucial role in the control of spatial attention, it appears to do so through mechanisms that are dissociable from the well-known mechanisms in sensory cortex.

These findings have led us to propose that attention is not primarily a sensory processing bottleneck, but is instead a by-product of downstream decision-making steps. We are testing these ideas using a combination of electrophysiology, functional imaging, and optogenetic approaches, and our new results support the perspective that the brain mechanisms for attention are centered on an evolutionarily conserved subcortical decision-making circuit that predates the emergence of the neocortex.

October 23, 2015

Patricia J. Bauer, PhD

Department of Psychology, Emory University

Going Beyond the Given: Generation of New Knowledge in the Lab & in the Classroom
Building a knowledge base is one of the most important tasks in development and education. Formal and informal educators alike go to great lengths to impart information to learners. Yet for learning experiences to have their maximum impact, learners must go beyond what is directly given to them to generate novel understandings and innovations, the currencies of academic, as well as, vocational success. Extensive research has examined a generation of novel understandings through different forms of reasoning, including analogy, deduction, and induction. Yet attention to how productive processes operate over information acquired in different learning episodes, separated by time, modality, or medium, is only beginning to be understood.

The focus of the talk will be new research on the productive process of self-generation of new knowledge through integration of separate episodes. Data from preschool-age children, school-age children, and college-age adults will be presented. The data establish the phenomenon of self-generation through integration. Work using behavior, eye tracking, and event-related potentials (ERPs) has revealed some of the cognitive processes involved. Individual differences in self-generation through integration relate to academic achievement, prompting translation of the research into classroom settings, including elementary education models in which information is presented in different languages, requiring integration across different surface forms, a challenge in most productive extension paradigms.


October 7, 2015

Morten H. Christiansen, PhD

Cornell University, University of Southern Denmark, and Haskins Laboratories

The Now-or-Never Bottleneck: A Fundamental Constraint on Language
Language happens in the here-and-now. Our memory for linguistic input is fleeting. New material rapidly obliterates previous material. How then can the brain deal successfully with the continual deluge of linguistic input? I argue that, to deal with this “Now-or-Never” bottleneck, the brain must incrementally compress and recode language input as rapidly as possible into increasingly more abstract of levels of linguistic representation. This perspective has profound implications for the nature of language processing, acquisition, and change. Focusing on language acquisition, I present a computational model that learns in a purely incremental fashion, through on-line processing of simple statistics, and offers broad, cross-linguistic coverage while uniting comprehension and production within a single framework. The model achieves strong performance across over 200 single-child corpora representing 29 languages from the CHILDES database. I conclude that the immediacy of language processing provides a fundamental constraint on accounts of language acquisition, implying that acquisition fundamentally involves learning to process, rather than inducing a grammar.

May 8, 2015

Grad Student Convo Lunch

On May 8, 2015, Cognitive Science @ Cornell held its first Grad Student Convo Lunch. Eight students, recipients of cognitive science travel funding during the 2014-2015 academic year, gave a short talk on their work to date.

Carissa Kang, Human Development

Code-Switching & the Executive Function

Yue Yu, Human Development

Imitation Behavior in Young Children: Individual Differences & Developmental Trajectory

Ethan Jost, Psychology

Plasticity & Reorganization in the Brain’s Language Network

Todd Snider, Linguistics

Informative Counterfactuals

Christina French Chick, Human Development

Neural Correlates of Framing Effects: Contextual Shifts in Risk Preference

Erin Isbilen, Psychology

Music-Color Cross-Modal Association & Synesthesia

Stewart McCauley, Psychology

Associative Learning Shapes Online Language Learning & Sentence Processing

Catalina Iricinschi, Psychology

Views from Above: High-Angle Camera Shots in Cross-Cultural Film

April 10, 2015

David Badre, PhD

Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences
Brown University

Prefrontal Cortex and the Hierarchical Control of Behavior
This talk will describe a recent line of research in our lab investigating the cognitive and neural systems that support hierarchical cognitive control, or our ability to simultaneously control immediate actions while also holding more abstract, temporally remote goals in mind. Psychologists have long proposed that we have a capacity for hierarchical control, citing its potential contributions to sequential behavior, as well as higher-order planning, reasoning, and abstraction. Despite its importance for cognition, the cognitive and neural mechanisms that support hierarchical control remain unknown. Here I will provide evidence that this type of complex control could arise through elaboration of the simple corticostriatal motor circuit.

March 13, 2015

Peter J. Richerson, PhD

Department of Environmental Science and Policy
University of California, Davis

Human Evolution in the Plio-Pleistocene: A World Queerer than We Supposed
The evolution of the human capacity for adaptation via cumulative cultural evolution is a major macroevolutionary puzzle. Beginning about 2 million years ago our lineage began to evolve our very large brain. At least two of the things our brain includes are a uniquely sophisticated system of social learning and social psychology that facilitates cooperation with nonrelatives. In the Holocene, humans have undergone a massive adaptive radiation based on cultural adaptations that have made us the earth’s ecologically dominant species. Most similar “killer adaptations,” such as the camera-type eye and internal skeleton of vertebrates, evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. The default, often unarticulated, hypothesis to explain the late emergence of cumulative culture is that it requires complex reorganizations of the brain, and perhaps other features of the basic vertebrate body plan to achieve. Hundreds of millions of years transpired before the critical final reorganization occurred in our species.

Another possible explanation is that the big brain and extended life history required to sustain cumulative culture is quite costly. Only an environment in which the payoff to cumulative culture is unusually high will favor its evolution. In the last few decades we have learned from ice, lake, and ocean cores that climates have gotten colder, drier, and more variable in space and time over the last 50 million years. With the onset of the Plio-Pleistocene glacial system climates became especially variable, albeit mostly on time scales too long to favor cumulative culture. High-resolution cores began to be recovered and published in the 1990s. They revealed that the last ice age included large amounts of climate variation on century to millennial time scales. These are the time scales that theoretical models suggest can favor a costly system of cumulative culture. In the last decade, longer high-resolution cores suggest that the amount of high-frequency variation has progressively increased over the last several 100,000-year glacial cycles, roughly paralleling increases in human brain size and the increases in sophistication of stone tools. We cannot reject the hypothesis that the human capacity for cumulative culture evolved in the Plio-Pleistocene in direct response to high and rising environmental variation. The expansion of Anatomically Modern Humans out of Africa occurred near the onset of an especially variable part of the last ice age. Agriculture, the economic basis for our Holocene dominance, began to evolve when the intense millennial and submillennial scale variation stopped.

November 7, 2014

Steven Strogatz, PhD

Department of Mathematics
Cornell University

Small-World Networks in Science & Society
Everyone is familiar with the small-world phenomenon: soon after meeting a stranger, we are often surprised to discover that we have a mutual friend or that we are linked by a short chain of friends. In this talk, I’ll present evidence that the small-world phenomenon is more than a curiosity of social networks — it is actually a general property of many networks found in nature and technology, ranging from nervous systems to the power grid and the Internet. I’ll also speculate about some of the broader implications of these findings (e.g., for the spread of infectious diseases), and will reveal the identity of the actor at the center of the Hollywood universe (it’s not Kevin Bacon).

October 31, 2014

Tom Mitchell, PhD

Machine Learning Department
Carnegie Mellon University

Neural Representations of Language Meaning
How does the human brain use neural activity to create and represent meanings of words, sentences, and stories? One way to study this question is to have people read text while scanning their brain, then develop machine learning methods to discover the mapping between language features and observed neural activity. We have been doing such experiments with fMRI (1 mm spatial resolution) and MEG (1 msec time resolution) brain imaging for over a decade. As a result, we have learned answers to questions such as, Are the neural encodings of word meaning the same in your brain and mine? Are neural encodings of word meaning built out of recognizable subcomponents or are they randomly different for each word? What sequence of neurally encoded information flows through the brain during the half-second in which the brain comprehends a single word or when it comprehends a multiword sentence?

April 2014

Peter beim Graben, PhD

Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin
DFG Heisenberg Fellow for Cognitive Neurodynamics

Reanalysis and limited repair parsing in neural networks
In his paper “Reanalysis and limited repair parsing: Leaping off the garden path”, Lewis (1998) presented a computational account to Fodor & Inoue’s (1994) diagnosis model for syntactic garden path theory (Frazier 1987). In my presentation I shall demonstrate how the discrete states of Lewis’ (1998) symbolic repair parser can be represented by activation vectors of a neural network that are connected through heteroclinic sequences in continuous time (Rabinovich et al. 2008, beim Graben & Potthast 2012). In this picture, encountering a garden path corresponds to an undesired fixed point attractor that has to be destabilized by a bifurcation in course of diagnosis processes. Leaping off the garden path is then described by a change of the network’s control parameters reflecting the syntactic processing strategy (beim Graben et al. 2004, Kiebel et al. 2009).

January 2014

Devin G. Pope, PhD

University of Chicago
Associate Professor of Behavioral Science &
Robert King Steel Faculty Fellow

Numerical Thinking
Many of the important decisions that we make in life require dealing with numbers. Individuals, however, often struggle to understand and properly use numbers, which can lead to distorted decisions. I explore the psychology of numerical thinking using evidence from marathon runners, car buyers, SAT takers, baseball players, and house buyers.

October 2013

Cognitive Science @ Cornell’s Anniversary Symposium
Celebrating 25 Years of Using Our Brains

Michael J. Spivey, PhD

Professor of Cognitive and Information Sciences
UC Merced, Associate Dean of the School of Social Sciences

On the Impact of Ulric Neisser’s Perception-Action Cycle

Sarah E. Murray, PhD

Cornell, Assistant Professor, Linguistics

Evidentials and the Crosslinguistic Encoding of Information

R. Nathan Spreng, PhD

Cornell, Assistant Professor, Human Development, Cornell
Director of the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition

A Face in the Crowd: Socio-Mnemonic Influences on Working Memory

Khena M. Swallow, PhD

Cornell, Assistant Professor, Psychology

How Events Shape Attention Over Time

Jessie Bee Kim Koh

Cornell, Graduate Student, College of Human Ecology
Recipient of 2013 Cognitive Science Fellowship Award, Cornell

Development of the Extended Self and Relations to Children’s Socio-Emotional Well-Being in the Cultural Contexts

October 2013

P. Thomas Schoenemann, PhD

Indiana University, Dept. of Anthropology

Broca’s Area and the Evolution of Language
Several areas of the brain important to language appear to have undergone significant evolutionary elaboration during human evolution. One area of particular interest is Broca’s area, located in the left inferior frontal gyrus, which plays important roles in language processing. Unraveling the evolutionary history of this area is a key to the puzzle of the origin of language. Although generally known as a “language area,” cross-species neuroanatomical comparisons have identified apparently homologous areas in both apes and monkeys (our closest primate relatives). This means that Broca’s area did not evolve specifically for language, but instead was co-opted for language processing at some point during our evolutionary history. Presumably, this occurred because it processed information in a way that would have been useful to language. One intriguing possibility is that the original, pre-linguistic function of Broca’s area was to extract sequential patterns of any kind from the environment. Fossil and comparative primate evidence relevant to the evolution of Broca’s area will be reviewed, which suggest it has a long history of importance for communication. A model of language evolution will then be outlined that derives from a consideration of what we currently know about human brain evolution

September 2013

Jonah Berger, PhD

University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School, Marketing

How Senses Shape Language
Why do some linguistic phrases catch on and become more popular than others? There are multiple ways to convey the same thing and linguistic variants with similar meanings often act as substitutes, competing for usage. We study how the senses shape language evolution, suggesting that compared to their semantic equivalents (e.g., unfriendly person), linguistic variants which relate to senses in metaphoric ways (e.g., cold person) should be more culturally successful.

March 2013

Edwin Hutchins, PhD

UC San Diego, Department of Cognitive Science

The Cultural Practice of Cognition
Everybody knows that humans are cultural animals. Although this fact is universally acknowledged, many opportunities to exploit it in cognitive science are overlooked. In this talk I draw on examples from a number of real-world activities to illustrate the ways in which human cognitive processes are orchestrated by cultural practices. I then explore some of the implications of this cultural basis of human cognition for both theory and method in cognitive science.

March 2013

Thomas Bever, PhD

University of Arizona, Regents Professor of Psychology, Linguistics, Neuroscience, and Cognitive Science

Normal Variation in the Behavior and Neurology of Language: Implications for Genetic Modularity of Mind and Brain

February 2013

Terrence W. Deacon, PhD

UC Berkeley, Dept. of Anthropology

Language Adaptations, Non-Darwinian Processes, & Semiotic Constraints
I survey divergent features of human brains in the context of two evolutionary influences: 1. Demands imposed by adaptation to an artificial symbolic-linguistic niche (a variation on niche construction) 2. The synergistic effects of relaxation of selection due to tool use and self-domestication.

In addition, I consider how the self-organizing effects of social-transmission serve to regularize language structures, and highlight the critical influence of seldom-appreciated semiotic constraints on language structure and its quasi-universal features.

I conclude that it’s time to stop focusing too narrowly on natural selection processes, abandon an oversimplified computational conception of language structure, and pay attention to influences that can be ascribed neither to nature nor to nurture (i.e., semiotic constraints).

October 2012

Uri Hasson, PhD

Princeton University, Dept. of Psychology

Face to Face, Brain to Brain: Exploring the Mechanisms of Dyadic Social Interactions
Cognition materializes in an interpersonal space. The emergence of complex behaviors requires the coordination of actions among individuals according to a shared set of rules. Despite the central role of other individuals in shaping our minds, experiments typically isolate human or animal subjects from their natural environment by placing them in a sealed quiet room where interactions occur solely with a computer screen. In everyday life, however, we spend most of our time interacting with other individuals.

In this talk I argue in favor of a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference. I present a series of studies aimed at characterizing the brain-to-brain coupling during real life social interaction. The data suggest that in many cases the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via the transmission of a signal through the environment. The brain-to-brain neural coupling exposes a shared neural substrate that exhibits temporally aligned response patterns across communicators. The recording of the neural responses from two brains opens a new window into the neural basis of interpersonal communication, and may be used to assess verbal and non-verbal forms of interaction in both human and other model systems.

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