Cognitive Science Colloquium Series

2015-2016 Series

November 12, 2015 (LC 104, 3:30 pm)

Lay Theories of Mind and Brain

Diego Fernandez-Duque  (Villanova University)

What are some of the common-sense beliefs that people hold about the mind, the brain, and their relationship? To address this question, I will describe two lines of research from my lab.

1.  The Allure of Neuroscience. We found that explanations of psychological phenomena become more appealing when accompanied by irrelevant neuroscience information. I will discuss possible reasons why.

2.  The Self is Brain-Made. We found that people think of their ‘true’ self as brain-based and unchangeable through willful control. I will discuss this in relation to determinism and moral responsibility.

The video of the talk is available here; the PPT slides of the talk are available here.


2014-2015 Series

April 29, 2015 (CSB Auditorium, 3:30 pm)

Zebrafish in Neuroscience: Modern Approaches to Studying Neuronal Dynamics in a Live Animal

Joseph DiPietro  (Cornell University)

The various genetic tools available for larval zebrafish, as well as the transparency of their body make these animals a great model for studying vertebrate nervous system. The ability to target specific classes of cells and directly image, monitor, and manipulate them in an intact live animal open up the possibility to answer fundamental questions about the structure and function of the nervous system as well as the neural basis of behavior. In this talk I will discuss the use of zebrafish in modern neuroscience, the various experimental techniques available, and the types of questions that can be answered. Specifically, I will focus on the work I have done trying to understand how the dendrites of motor neurons in the spinal cord search for new inputs. Understanding the strategy that neurons use to find new inputs (and remove old ones) could provide clues into how the nervous system homeostatically regulates the formation and breaking of synaptic contacts. Because the tools available for zebrafish allow for noninvasive analysis of individual neurons in a live intact animal, it makes it possible answer questions about how dendritic and synaptic dynamics might change throughout the circadian cycle. This could provide clues about the role that sleep and circadian rhythms might have on the regulation of neuronal circuits.

The video of the talk is available here.


November 7, 2014 (LC 104, 2:30 pm)

Cognitive skill building in infancy and its influence on later development

Lisa S. Scott  (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Using a combination of cross-sectional and longitudinal-training designs, behavioral measures of looking time, eye-tracking, and electrophysiological recordings of neural activity (event-related potentials; ERPs) we have begun to elucidate the perceptual and cognitive experiences that enhance or bias learning during the first year of life.  Our work suggests that infants carefully learn from their surrounding environment and that this learning influences cognitive, perceptual and social processing.  Here, I will present work that examines the role experience plays in shaping infant learning about people and objects and how parental labeling during the first year of life can serve as a springboard for cognitive skills in childhood.  For example, when infants hear parents label two different monkey faces in a storybook with individual-level names like ‘Oliver’ or ‘Suzie’ they learn that it is likely important for them to attend to the visual details necessary to tell the two monkeys apart.  However, if parents label all monkeys, “monkey” infants learn to group them into a category and focus on the features that the two monkeys share.  These differences can be identified both in behavior and in the brain.  Our recent findings suggest that individual-level learning in infancy results in skills lasting into early childhood (i.e., 4 years). Specifically, these skills benefit faces and/or objects that are perceived and recognized at the individual level (e.g., human faces).  These results are noteworthy because they link early learning, prior to the onset of productive language and several years prior to formal education, with later cognitive skills and neural responses.

The video of the talk is available here.


October 23, 2014 (CSB auditorium, 3:30 pm)

Which aspects of language and cognition depend on linguistic input? Insights from homesign gesture systems

Marie Coppola (University of Connecticut)

Researchers in the cognitive sciences have long debated the relationships between linguistic input and language structure, as well as the relationships between language and cognition. Homesign systems offer a unique window into these relationships. Homesigns are gesture systems developed by deaf individuals who are not exposed to conventional sign or spoken language input. Homesign systems exhibit a number of linguistic properties, but appear to lack others, which depend on access to a linguistic model and/or interaction within a language community. I will show that homesign systems have structure at a variety of levels of linguistic analysis, including phonology and discourse structure. I will describe some of the developmental consequences of linguistic (but not social) deprivation, particularly with respect to number cognition. Finally, I will discuss my work with Manos Unidas (, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote equal access to language and education for deaf individuals in Nicaragua.

The video of the talk is available here.


2013-2014 Series

 May 1, 2014 (CSB Auditorium, 4:30 pm)

Individual differences in the shape bias in word learning in typically developing children and children with Specific Language Impairment

James S. Magnuson (University of Connecticut and Haskins Laboratories)

By the time children produce about 150 nouns, they exhibit a “shape bias” when generalizing object names. When children at this stage are shown a novel object and asked to find another like it (“look at this! can you find another one?”), they will randomly choose objects similar to the novel object in shape, texture, color, or size. When the object is given a name, however (“look at this wug! can you find another wug?”), they predominantly choose objects with the same shape. Linda Smith and her colleagues have argued that children have learned that there is coherent covariation between visible object properties and linguistic frames involving names; that is, that children have picked up on a regularity in the world that nameable solid objects are more likely to share shape than other dimensions. Given evidence that children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) have subtle deficits in visual perception, we hypothesized that such subtle deficits would impair their ability to detect the visual-linguistic regularities that afford the shape bias and accelerate object word learning. We compared children ages 4-6 (well beyond the 150 noun stage) with typical language (TL) development and children with SLI in classic shape bias paradigms, and also assessed them on multiple linguistic and nonlinguistic abilities using standardized tests. We also assessed them with a simple paired visual associate (PVA) learning task repeated over 4 days. At the group level, children with TL showed a robust shape bias, and significant learning in the PVA task, while children with SLI failed to exhibit a shape bias and failed to learn in the PVA task. Individual differences analyses of all children revealed that PVA performance was the best predictor of shape bias; in fact, a regression model including only PVA could not be improved by including any other linguistic or nonlinguistic assessment. This suggests that subtle deficits in nonlinguistic domains may contribute significantly to word learning deficits and other deficits observed in SLI.

The video of the talk is available here.


March 27, 2014 (LC 104, 4:30 pm)

Audiovisual speech perception in children with autism spectrum disorders

Julia Irwin (Southern Connecticut State University)

In this talk I will present data comparing children with autism spectrum
disorders (ASD) to those with typical development (TD) on auditory, visual
and audiovisual speech perception. Using eye tracking methodology, we
assessed group differences in visual influence on heard speech and pattern
of gaze to speaking faces. There were no differences in perception of
auditory syllables /ma/ and /na/ in clear listening conditions or in the
presence of noise. In addition, there were no differences in perception of
a non-speech, non-face control. However, children with ASD were
significantly less visually influenced than TD controls in mismatched AV
and speech reading conditions, and showed less visual gain (AV speech in
the presence of auditory noise). Further, to examine whether differential
patterns of gaze may underlie these findings, we examined participant gaze
to the speaking faces. The children with ASD looked significantly less to
the face of the speaker overall. When children with ASD looked at a
speaker’s face, they looked less at the mouth of the speaker and more to
non-focal areas of the face during the speech reading and AV speech in
noise conditions. No group differences were observed for pattern of gaze to
non-face, non-speech controls.


December 2, 2013 (CSB Auditorium, 4:30 pm)

Development Evolving: From Innateness to Epigenesis 

Mark Blumberg (University of Iowa)

With their shared interests in time and change, developmental scientists and evolutionary biologists should be natural allies. But for most of the 20th century, development was banished from mainstream evolutionary thinking. This rift can be traced to the belief that genes determine the bodies and behaviors of adults, thereby rendering development uninteresting and unimportant. But times have changed: Embryos and infants are now widely viewed as vital intermediaries between the adults of successive generations, thereby focusing attention back on the mechanisms of development. Critically, closer inspection of behaviors that were once considered hardwired and innate is yielding a deeper appreciation for the complex cascade by which genetic and non-genetic factors jointly, interchangeably, and reliably reproduce behavior across generations. But still, even as processes of developmental change move to the forefront of biology, many developmental scientists continue to embrace ideas held over from an earlier time. Using examples drawn from a variety of domains, including sensory neuroscience and motor behavior, I will show in this talk how a full consideration of the processes of typical and atypical development, including so-called freaks of nature, will engender a unified and interdisciplinary understanding of change across developmental and evolutionary time.

The video of the talk is available here.


SPRING 2013 Series


April 3, 2013 (LC 108, 4:00 pm)

Incidence, Essence, and Developmental Systems: Biologos in Action

Susan Oyama (John Jay College, CUNY)

Biologos, the “language of language” (information, transcription, translation, etc.) that dominates contemporary gene-talk, is problematic in several ways. Among other things, it supports covert forms of preformationism and essentialism, even though both are supposed to have been banished from biology. By implying that the DNA contains representations of the organism, Biologos works against attempts to deal effectively with nature-nurture contrasts, as well as ongoing attempts to synthesize development with evolution. I argue that the concept of the developmental system offers a fruitful alternative to this complex of deeply traditional habits of thought.

The video of the talk is available here.


March 14, 2013 (LC 108, 4:30 pm)

Perceiving objects by feeling them: Understanding dynamic touch

Alen Hajnal (University of Southern Mississippi)

Haptic perception is the ability to perceive properties of objects through touch and movement.  Stephen and Hajnal (2011) have shown that haptic skills gained in one effector, such as the arm, transfer to other effectors, such as the leg.  I ask whether haptic perception of length transfers from rigid rods to compliant ropes. Fractal analyses of three-dimensional hand motion recordings revealed an intricate picture of exploration styles that contribute to the prediction of trial-by-trial changes in perceived length.


February 28, 2013 (LC 104, 4:00 pm)

How did I pick up that accent? Phonetic convergence in spoken communication

Jennifer Pardo (Montclair State University)

Acoustic and phonetic variability within and between talkers does not arise by chance. Instead, such variation is attributable to a variety of causes including talker physiology, dialect, affect, and social/situational factors. Among the important social functions that speech serves are marking a talker’s identity, signaling their orientation to an interactive situation, and indexing the situational roles of interacting talkers. Studies of conversational interaction demonstrate the influence of such functions on many aspects of spoken communication. In particular, talkers sometimes become more similar over the course of a conversational interaction. The degree of inter-talker phonetic convergence has been found to be influenced by social factors such as talker role and sex. This talk provides an overview of the current state of research on phonetic convergence.


SPRING 2012 Series


April 27, 2012 (CSB Auditorium, 4:00 pm)

Tales of Instinctive Behavior and Experiential Co-dependency

David B. Miller (University of Connecticut)

In recent decades, the emerging field known as “evo-devo” (as in “evolution-development) has generated exciting research on the importance developmental influences on evolution, and vice versa.   The interrelationship between evolution and development necessitates a better understanding of underlying developmental mechanisms.  I shall discuss views of development from a historical perspective and how earlier views have “evolved” into what some refer to as the transactional view of development, a way of thinking about development that captures the inherent complexity of emergent developmental systems.  Part and parcel of this view is the role of nonobvious (or nonlinear) experiential influences on the development of instinctive behavior.   I’ll present examples of how such subtle influences greatly influence behavior and then illustrate this further with my own research on alarm call responsivity of mallard ducklings, which not only portrays nonlinear experiential influences but also multiple pathways toward a common developmental outcome.

The video of the talk is available here.


March 5, 2012 (LC 108, 3:00 pm)

The Fallacies of the Five Senses

Michael Gordon (William Paterson University)

More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle proposed the, now, traditional divisions between the five senses. While these divisions have been perpetuated in modern culture, numerous behavioral and physiological studies would seem to challenge the validity of such a model. Several alternative theories have since been suggested, including divisions based on differences in the types of media detected, the sensory organs, neurophysiological pathways and structures, and phenomenology. Evidence from developmental, neurophysiological, and multimodal behavioral studies is evaluated against these theories to clarify their sufficiency. In conclusion it is proposed that there are ecological constraints on perception and action that have guided what we perceive as the natural sensory divisions, suggesting that sensory divisions are derived from the environments in which we evolved.

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