Carey Lab Members
Department of Psychology
33 Kirkland St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
I study the learning mechanisms that are involved in the construction of new concepts, new explanatory understanding, and new theories. Specifically, I study the role of thought experiments, limiting case analyses, and other rationalistic practices in the process of constructing explanatory understanding. I also study the role of executive function in supporting the construction of new knowledge. Finally, I study the mechanisms that constrain and shape the social transmission of knowledge. To address these research questions, I use various methods, including experiments, intervention studies, and clinical interviews. I work with preschool children and young elementary school children, and in my more recent work, I also work with adults and elderly adults.
My central research interest concerns elucidating the relationship between language and cognitive development – How does the emergence of various linguistic expressions in a child’s language depend on the child’s growing conceptual capacity? Conversely, in what ways does language acquisition itself make certain concepts more saliently available for problem solving? Furthermore, how might language play a role in the creation of new representational structures?
The broad aim of my research program is to understand the varieties of causal reasoning in the human mind. I use methods from cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and vision science. Causality, in different forms, is a topic of interest in all of these domains, and I hope to bridge some of the gaps between them and connect findings from different fields in a more cohesive understanding of the concept of causality.
Human beings are the only animals who can construct both cathedrals and ethical theories, can understand both why a solar system can be like an atom and how the world can be like a stage. Such feats rest on our unparalleled ability to generate complex abstract representations like ‘atom’ or ‘solar system’. However, successful abstract reasoning involves more than just having the right representations: We need enough processing power to hold the relevant ideas in mind, compare and manipulate them. Moreover, we must correctly identify which ideas are relevant to the situation in the first place.
With this in mind, my research program explores the interplay in development of abstract representations, executive function and metacognition. Specifically, looking at their contributions to performance on case studies of abstract reasoning tasks. Central questions include: How can we tease apart the contributions of these capacities on a given abstract reasoning task at a given age? What is the relationship between implicit and explicit versions of tasks? How does cultural experience affect the development of these capacities? Based on such analyses, can we generate targeted interventions to improve performance on a given task?
Human beings are alone in the animal kingdom in developing an extraordinary repertoire of intricate kind representations during the earliest stages of development—representations for kinds of things like dogs, watches, cities, and mountains. A normally developing young child takes as input experience with particular things she encounters, sometimes only one or two particular things, and outputs a representation of an entire category that can then, in principle, apply to indefinitely many novel instances (Carey and Bartlett, 1978; Lyons, 1977; Macnamara, 1986). In my research, I study the structure of these categories, with a particular focus on the formal aspects of representational structure: those aspects of representational structure that are unique to kind representations, and which are used across all content domains. Questions I look to address in this research program include: i) What innate constraints are there on the structure of kind representations? ii) All kind representations (e.g., dog) are organized into kinds of kinds, or domains (e.g., animal); which domains are children sensitive to, and why are they sensitive to these domains and not others? iii) The human cognitive system is invested with kinds that emerge early in development and across a variety of cultures and natural languages, but humans also construct scientific kinds (e.g., particle); what are the similarities and differences in early emerging and scientific kind representations? Are they supported by the same mechanisms, or different ones? Are they subject to the same constraints? iv) Kind representations, encoded as count nouns, interface with the combinatorial syntax and semantics of natural language; what format is required for kinds to be used in this manner? I answer these questions by using methods that assess the child’s explanations, normative expectations, and generalizations over known and novel kinds.
I am primarily interested in how infants and young children conceptualize and recognize the relationships between others as third-party observers. What do they understand about different relationships at different ages? What kinds of cues do young children rely on to infer relationships? Do they expect a relationship between two individuals to be stable across different situations? Such questions are important because understanding relationships helps babies and children to view others’ social behaviors in context, and to predict their behaviors in the future. My research attempts to answer some of these questions by focusing on friendship and dominance, two canonical relationships that are important to children’s own lives.
In general, I’m interested in the interface between conceptual information with perceptual processing. How do children form broad categories of objects (e.g., all animates vs inanimates)? How do children infer the size of a depicted object in the real-world? I also work in the Vision Lab with George Alvarez and Talia Konkle.
I’m interested in the developmental and evolutionary origins of logical reasoning, and its relationship with language. Logical representations like “or” and “not” can be combined with information from a variety of domains, regardless of that information’s content. For example, given the premises “A or B” and “not A”, the conclusion “therefore B” always applies, no matter what A and B are. This kind of reasoning seems intuitive and automatic to adults, but it requires combining information with very abstract operations to form more complex thoughts.
My research asks when in development these domain-general and abstract logical computations emerge, and whether they depend on language. I’m currently working on a series of studies looking at the early logical reasoning abilities of infants and toddlers. using the disjunctive syllogism as a case study for logical reasoning more broadly. We’re also looking at toddlers’ earliest comprehension of logical words like “and”, “or”, and “not”.…
I am interested in those cognitive functions that allow us to link and combine different types of concepts with each other to form thoughts significantly more complex than their component pieces. While language is one clear example of a mechanism that allows us to do this, logic is another candidate vehicle for the combination of individual concepts into complex propositional thoughts.
To look at how language, logic and complex conceptual thought are interrelated, I use psycholinguistic methods to study how adult semantic representations involve logical elements and how children acquire a language that employs such elements. I also study infants to look for hints of cognitive abilities that use logical operators in the absence of the relevant language. The broad and ambitious goal of all of these projects is to chart out the structure and the course of development of domain-general, propositional and combinatorial functions of thought.
I’m interested in how representational systems present in early
development support the acquisition of abstract knowledge, and
structure and constrain later developing flexible reasoning abilities.
I focus particularly on causal reasoning and goal inference.
I’m interested in how babies and young children come to understand the inner workings of others. What are their earliest representations of others’ internal states like, what are infants able to do with those representations, and how do children’s theories of mind develop? I’m also curious about when and how language plays a role in various aspects of social cognition and its development.
I am interested in how we perceive events in the world, how this may change over the course of development and how it interacts with the acquisition of language. How do infants understand the relationship between cause and effect and how does this influences their ability to make novel inferences? How does early event perception influence how novel verbs are interpreted? In turn, how do the grammatical structures of the language the child is learning influence how she comes to interpret actions and events? Currently, I am investigating how perception of causal events influences novel verb learning.
My research centers around questions of how infants and young children learn about the world around them. How does the structure of our underlying cognitive representations allow us to parse the world into meaningful components and encode the relationships among them? My current studies with infants explore what types of prior knowledge and hypotheses we are endowed with from the earliest stages of life that allow us to quickly encode statistical regularities and draw causal inferences. I am also working with young children, studying how the capacity limits of working memory and our abilities to advantageously reorganize information develops over the lifespan.
I am studying the relationship between executive function and conceptual development. In children, we ask how mechanisms such as working memory and shifting might play a role in children’s ability to construct and express conceptual understandings, such as what it means to be alive. In elderly adults and patients with Alzheimer’s disease, we ask how the loss of executive function might affect their ability to express or maintain conceptual understanding.
My research focuses on two topics. First, I’m interested in how infants and children think about social group membership and conventional behavior, and how their understanding of these topics might guide their own adherence to conventions. Second, I’m interested in the role that executive functions play in the big leaps in learning that children make as they get older. Studies in this area focus on how executive functions may help children from 18 months on to both construct and express new concepts and theories about the world.
I study speech processing in infancy and how it relates to other domains of cognition. How do infants represent speech? How are these representations related to linguistic representations? Can infants use speech properties to individuate people? What are the consequences of learning words on memory and cognitive computations? By answering some of these questions, I hope to better understand what makes the human mind so unique.
I am broadly interested in early working memory development. How do
infants keep track of multiple items or events at once, and what can
they remember about these items? Once they have these items in memory, what sorts of manipulations or transformations can be performed? Currently, I am pursuing projects that examine how infants represent
causal relationships in working memory.