Current Lab Members

Laura Schulz - Primary Investigator
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 the social-communicative context (e.g., demonstrating evidence, explaining events, disagreeing about hypotheses) affects children’s learning.

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 February, 2013)

Julian Jara-Ettinger - Graduate Student
I am interested in how Theory of Mind (ToM) supports learning and moral reasoning, how we can implement it on a machine, and how individual differences affect social cognition, as in autism. My current work looks at how we infer motivational states and the role they play in our moral intuitions. To do this, I use qualitative studies with children, probabilistic bayesian models, and quantitative studies with adults.

Melissa Kline - Graduate Student
I study the intersections between cognitive development and language acquisition. I am broadly interested in a few questions about early development and the implications they have for how we understand adult cognition and language. First, how are pre- or non-linguistic concepts like causation, agency and physical space mapped to language? Second, how do early cognitive capacities like social cognition and awareness of information structure impact early language learning and use?

More specifically, 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. I study how children use their conceptual and linguistic representations of causation to make inferences about particular events in the world, and about the meanings of syntactic structures such as the transitive (Jane broke the lamp) and periphrastic causative (Jane made the lamp break). I also look at how event representations and pragmatics interact for children who are just beginning to form their first multi-word utterances.

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.

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
Within the first few years, infants’ conceptual knowledge develops dramatically. How do they build and enrich their conceptual structures? Specifically, I am interested in the learning process underlying this conceptual development, and the way children use their knowledge to make explanations and predictions. I expect to study these issues with behavioral experiments as well as computational models. The neural basis for this development might also be a direction of my future studies.

Hyowon Gweon - Postdoctoral Associate (Saxelab)
Humans possess a powerful learning mechanism which allows 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?

Paul Muentener - Postdoctoral Associate
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.

Rachel Magid - Lab Coordinator
Learning would be much more difficult if we couldn't figure out what and whom we should attend to. I'm interested in understanding how children learn from different sources and the relative benefits children receive when learning from others versus from their own exploration. What factors influence children's routes to new evidence? I am also interested in the relationship between imagination and learning.

Undergraduate Research Assistants

Kristyn Berretta I am a sophomore at MIT double majoring in Math and Management with a concentration in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I am excited to be studying the development of the theory of mind in the ECCL. I look forward to working with children and studying their behavior and development in detail. I am especially interested in studying babies and getting a better grasp on their abilities to understand and interpret the world around them.

Marina Crowe I study Brain and Cognitive Sciences as a sophomore at MIT. I like working with kids, and I love that they are canvases ready to be filled. I am jealous of their endless imaginations. The brain in the developmental stage is so malleable, and I am curious to see how it is so greatly affected in children. I am especially interested in the development of morality; when and how do we learn such an important, and abstract, aspect of humanity? I am excited to learn and stimulate my curiosity, and I look forward to my time at the ECCL!

Sarina Hannon I am an MIT Sophomore majoring in Brain and Cognitive Science. I am particularly interested in emotional cognition and early childhood development. My work at ECCL will focus on exploring causal reasoning in infancy and early childhood, and I am extremely excited to delve into the human mind and how it develops.

Nia Jin I am a senior student in MIT majoring in Brain and Cognitive ScienceS. I have been more acquainted with neurobiology and systems neuroscience, questioning what brain the is. Now I am starting to question what the brain does. What is the mind? And how does it work? As a research assistant in ECCL, I am hoping to learn how to get the answers.

Jill Katz I am an MIT sophomore studying Brain & Cognitive Sciences. I am particularly interested in cognitive development and learning, and it is fascinating to me how we can see these processes in young children. Additionally, I am simply amazed by the complexity of thought. I'm excited to work with the kids in the PlayLab.

Nate Kim I am an MIT undergraduate majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I am especially interested in cognitive development in moral decision-making and how a sense of justice is developed in children. What goes through the mind of a child before he or she makes a morally questionable decision? What are the origins of self-accountability and our sense of what is right and wrong? I am looking forward to exploring these questions as I work in the Early Childhood Cognition Lab.

Kira Kopacz I am an undergraduate at MIT majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences with a minor in Theater. I enjoy working with children and am fascinated with how humans develop and begin to interact in the real world. After graduation, I plan to attend medical school to become a pediatric psychiatrist. Working in the ECCL gives me the opportunity to experience first hand how children develop that will benefit me in the future. I'm particularly interested in how children learn language and then use it to communicate effectively.

Mika Maeda I'm a junior at Wellesley College, majoring in Neuroscience. I have always loved working with children at summer camps, so I'm looking forward to studying children from a research perspective. I will be involved in examining the role of cost perception in children's reasoning about an agent's motivation and competence in moral reasoning scenarios. I'm very interested in autism, and am excited that this research will help contribute to the field.

Kristina PresingI am an undergraduate at MIT majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences with a minor in Biomedical Engineering. I enjoy working with kids, and I’m really interested in learning how our decision-making processes develops, as well as our sense of what is right and wrong. Everyone has a different way of making decisions, and a different set of moral intuitions; I’m really looking forward to better understanding how these abilities develop from an early age through my work in the Early Childhood Cognition Lab.

Cristina Spicer I am a sophomore at MIT majoring in Math and minoring in Brain & Cognitive Science. I enjoy working with children and learning how they perceive the world around them. Specifically, I am interested in the psychology of learning, particularly in young children. I am excited to work in the ECCL and explore these interests and make further discoveries.

Vivian Tran I am a freshman double majoring in Brain & Cognitive Science and Linguistics. I am fascinated by how children learn so much about the world through play and exploration alone, even with little instruction or guidance. I hope to study how children learn so quickly, and in particular what external cues they focus on and use in exploratory play. I look forward to working with everyone at ECCL to contribute to our ongoing understanding of these topics!

Jess Wass I'm a junior at MIT majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and minoring in Chemistry. How the mind works and processes all the information around us is fascinating to me and I'm particularly interested in how children begin to use all of this information. After MIT I hope to go to medical school and become a doctor, possibly dealing with pediatrics


Vivienne Wang I am interested in the mysterious and complex mechanisms of children’s fast learning. It seems to me that they learn everything, such as language, so quickly and effortlessly, yet so well. In my current research I am utilizing Google CourseBuilder to create online courses so that I can carry out experiments by making different sets of modifications to the learning modules to compare and contrast learners’ responses. I hope to discover some efficient learning patterns and ways in which learners can be better motivated and supported. I believe if we can find a way to apply the fundamental component of children’s fast learning ability to adults, we will make a real difference in the world.

Meiji Yue I am a freshman at MIT pursuing a major in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in Brain and Cognitive Science. Human brains are more than just computer-like machines that gather and process information; rather, the ability to learn makes us inherently human, and influences who we are as unique individuals and how we interact with the complex world around us. With a better understanding of how children’s minds work, I hope to learn how the people we used to be created the people we are today.