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.
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.
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)
Hyowon will be joining the faculty at Stanford University starting summer 2014.
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
Paul will be joining the faculty at Tufts University starting fall 2014.
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.
Samantha Floyd - Lab Coordinator
Undergraduate Research Assistants
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.
I am broadly interested in the development and evolution of human social cognition. In summer 2013, I studied capuchins' responses to inequity as an intern in the Yale Comparative Cognition Laboratory. More recently, I spent a year as a research assistant in the Social Cognitive Development Group of the Harvard Lab for Developmental Studies. I joined ECCL in Summer 2014, and currently I'm working with Julian on an exciting project about how children reason about other people's decisions. Long term, I want to better understand the development and evolution of human moral cognition by comparing human adults, children, and primates. I will graduate from MIT in February 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
Sophie Geoghan I'm a undergraduate at MIT studying Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I'm hoping to go into psychology, maybe for children, after undergrad. I find it fascinating how little we know about our own brains and how we come to gain knowledge. I love playing with children and am glad that I can help discover more about the brain by doing so!
Veronica Chu I am a junior at MIT pursuing a degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Continuing with ECCL, I am interested in children’s sensitivity to the goal of learning in a social context and look forward to seeking a greater understanding of how children reason about the world.
Jenny Sangliana I am a rising senior at MIT majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I am interested in how children acquire language and their ability use the world around them to process information. Additionally, I am also interested in studying psychiatric disorders and how they affect linguistic development in early childhood. I am excited to work at the ECCL and to continue learning and discovering more about these topics.
I am a junior 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.
I am a sophomore at MIT majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and double minoring in Linguistics and Music. I have always really loved working with kids, and I’m particularly interested in how children acquire language and the cognitive similarities between language and music. I am excited to be working at ECCL and to learn more about these fascinating topics!
Dayna Wilmot I am a rising MIT sophomore, majoring in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I have always been interested in the human mind, and I’m excited to begin my practical study of Neuroscience so early in my MIT career. I am very interested in finding out more about learning and development, and believe that the ECCL is a great place to begin my journey!