Primary Investigator


Laura Schulz


The infrastructure of human cognition -- our commonsense understanding of the physical and social world -- is constructed during early childhood. I study the representations and learning mechanisms that underlie this feat. My research looks at 1) how children infer the concepts and causal relations that enable them to engage in accurate prediction, explanation, and intervention; 2) the factors that support curiosity and exploration, allowing children to engage in effective discovery and 3) how these abilities inform and interact with social cognition to support intuitive theories of the self and others.

Computational models of human cognition inform much of the research in the lab. I have been especially interested in understanding trade-offs in the inferential process, such that the same inductive biases that constrain the hypothesis space and allow us to draw rich inferences from sparse data can also make it difficult for us to revise our beliefs. This paradox poses a challenge for educators but also provides insight into the factors that might promote effective learning and teaching.

Most of the research in the lab involves babies and children. Since babies and children have limited prior knowledge and no formal training, understanding how children reason about the world can give us insight into the origins of knowledge and fundamental principles of learning. We have on-site laboratories that constitute the PlayLab at the Boston Children's Museum, where we use a variety of approaches, ranging from infant-looking time methods to free-play paradigms in our studies.

Curriculum Vitae (updated August, 2016)


   

 

Postdoctoral Researchers

 

 
 

Julian Jara-Ettinger - Postdoctoral Researcher
I study the fundamental representations and computations that underlie our ability to navigate the social and physical world. My work spans across ages, cultures, and clinical populations, but my primary focus is on early childhood. My research combines behavioral studies with mathematical models and computer simulations to develop and test cognitive theories. To date, much of my work specifically looks at how we represent and reason about other people’s minds and on how we infer what they know, think, and want.


 
       
 
Melissa Kline - Postdoctoral Researcher
How does language help us break our understanding of the dynamic world around us into just the right pieces for communication? How do babies and children build the system of structured and abstract representations that make up sentence-level meaning? I study the intersections between cognitive development and language acquisition, in particular how pre- or non-linguistic concepts like causation, agency and physical space get mapped into language. I am interested in how children (and adults) use syntactic structures to make inferences about what sentences mean, and to choose the right things to say to get their own meanings across.

 
   

 

Graduate Students

 

 
       
 

Julia Leonard - Graduate Student


What determines whether a child flourishes cognitively and emotionally? How does this depend on environmental factors, such as stress and socioeconomic status? Most importantly, can we use the lessons learned from the study of positive development to create interventions that foster resilience in children from all backgrounds? These questions drive my interest in child development and I'm currently exploring them, employing both behavioral and neuroimaging methods, in collaboration with Laura Schulz and John Gabrieli.

 


 
 

Rachel Magid - Graduate Student

How do we know what we're good at, when to try something new, and how to maximize positive experiences while minimizing negative ones? I am interested in theories of the self, how children develop them, and how they are shaped by evidence. While children around the world share a common set of physical and cognitive abilities, children also grow into distinct individuals, shaped by local cultures and environments. A better understanding of how children come to understand themselves can help explain one of the great mysteries of human cognition—how we learn a great deal so efficiently and flexibly.


 
 

Hilary Richardson - Graduate Student

While I was a research assistant at the University of Michigan I became extremely interested in developmental neuroscience and studies surrounding the theory of mind. I am intrigued by the different hypotheses explaining the development of the theory of mind, and am interested in how various life experiences affect this development. I am excited to be a part of the effort to clarify when and how this complex construct forms in the human brain.

 


 
       
 

Kimberly Scott - Graduate Student

I'm broadly interested in early consciousness and organization of perceptual experiences. In particular, my work focuses on how children perceive and organize their representations of time, as well as how infants connect percepts in the two cerebral hemispheres. I'm also working on reaching out to a broader population of participants by making some of our experiments available online.


 
       
 

Max Siegel - Graduate Student

I would like to understand how people, even young children, can recognize familiar things in unfamiliar situations, like meeting someone in the day and recognizing them at night. I think that this ability is an active one - we "know what to look for" to identify an object, just by being told the context in which we'll meet it. In the lab, we've investigated these questions by studying children's ability to imagine the sound that an object would make if it was shaken in a box, and we also attempt to use computational models to clarify and understand these issues.


 
 

Pedro Tsividis - Graduate Student

Children are incredibly capable learners - they form rich, structured representations of the world with exposure to far sparser data than what state-of-the-art computational models require for similar performance. I believe that a key component of children's ability to learn so well and so quickly is their sensitivity to statistical distributions in the world, and in particular, their use of this information to guide decisions about what events and objects to pay attention to. I am currently investigating the ways in which children are optimal learners in this respect. I am also interested in concept acquisition and representation, and in moral reasoning.


 
       
 

Yang Wu - Graduate Student

Emotion understanding is crucial for human beings. It could not only advance our knowledge about the world, but also assist our social interactions and communications. For example, if a child frowns at a plate of broccoli, we infer that the child does not like it; if a lady screams when she looks towards a corner, we infer that she sees something unpleasant, such as a spider. What are the representations in our minds that make these inferences so rich and efficient? In my research I look at how people's understanding of emotions is structurally and causally intertwined with other factors such as beliefs, desires, and actions that could support reasoning from one to another within this structure. I combine behavioral experiments with computational models to capture this representational structure in human adults and how it develops over infancy and childhood.

 


 
       
       
       
 

Kary Richardson - Lab Manager and Technical Assistant

 

 
   

 

 

Lab Alumni

 

 
       
 
Paul Muentener - Assistant Professor at Tufts University

My research explores the development of causal reasoning in infancy and early childhood. What is the range of events that we are able to reason about causally early in development? What kind of information enters into these causal representations? I am particularly interested in the role that representations of intentional agency play in causal reasoning. In my infant studies, I employ looking time measures and action-based tasks to explore our earliest causal reasoning skills. I also study children’s descriptions of causal events to investigate the relationship between children’s conceptual and linguistic representations of causality across development.


 
 

Hyowon Gweon - Asistant Professor at Stanford University

Humans possess a powerful learning mechanism which allows them to make sophisticated inferences from very sparse data. This mechanism not only allows us to learn so much from so little but also to learn from many different sources of information. The data can sometimes be generated by the learner, by a naturally occurring events, from another person’s unintentional actions, and sometimes by someone who has the explicit intent to teach. And in each of these contexts, the learner makes different assumptions and inferences. How can we formally characterize the differences between these contexts, and how do they affect what is learned? How do learners make use of others’ knowledge in order to learn about what they have no direct access to? What is the role of Theory of Mind in social learning, and what neural mechanisms underlie our ability to learn from others?


 
 
Elizabeth Bonawitz - Assistant Professor at Rutgers University

Elizabeth is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University - Newark. Her research bridges two research traditions: Cognitive Development and Computational Modeling. By bridging these methods, she hopes to understand the structure of children's early causal beliefs, how evidence and prior beliefs interact to affect children's learning, the developmental processes that influence children's belief revision, and the role of social factors (such as learning from others) in guiding learning.


 

Andrew Shtulman - Associate Professor at Occidental College


Andrew Shtulman is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Occidental College. He holds an A.B. in Psychology from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard University. His research explores conceptual development and conceptual change, particularly as they relate to science education, and his work has appeared in cognitive journals (Cognition, Cognitive Psychology), developmental journals (Child Development, Cognitive Development), and education journals (Educational Psychologist, Journal of Educational Psychology). Currently, Dr. Shtulman is pursuing research on the "\Causes and Consequences of Conceptual Change" funded by an Early Career Development Award from the NSF.

 

 
       
       
   

Undergraduate Research Assistants


 
 

Katy Hanling

I am a sophomore at MIT with a major in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I love being around children and seeing their imaginations at play. With respect to the lab's research, I am very intrigued by the vast cognitive feats demonstrated by infants and children in daily life. I sincerely enjoy having the opportunity to work with these young minds and to potentially discover new feats of which these minds are capable.
 

 


   
 

Yuna Lee

I am a sophomore at MIT majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I'm interested in children's learning and am looking into what motivates children into taking a positive attitude towards learning. I'm excited to continue my work at ECCL and find out more about children's cognitive development.
 

 


   
 

MaryDePascale

I graduated from Wesleyan University in May 2015 where I studied Psychology and Writing. I am interested in child development and education, particularly exploring how children learn and what types of environments and interactions best support learning. I am excited to be studying social cognition in the ECCL!
 

 


   
 

 

Ali Plump

I'm a rising junior at Buckingham Browne & Nichols school and I have a strong interest in the biological sciences. I've always had a curiosity about the way children learn and perceive the outside world. I'm really excited to get to work with the ECCL and pursue my interests in cognition and neuroscience.

           
 

 

Becca Leibowitz

I am a rising senior at Tufts University majoring in Child Study and Human Development. I love working with children and am interested in how they interact with and make sense of the world around them. I am excited to explore these concepts as part of the ECCL team!

 

 
 

 

Melanie Grad-Freilich

 

I'm a sophomore at Yale with plans to declare as a Cognitive Science major. I'm currently working with Julia to study how children view and ask for help. I'm particularly interested in how gender and socioeconomic differences affect how children approach play and learning. I'm very excited to work with the ECCL to deepen my understanding of childhood cognition and development.