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CogSci Podcast #1: An interview with Jeremy Karnowski

"Advice I got was... it would be better if you were able to actually study real-world systems... That was really fundamental in how I started shifting from one career to the next... If people are in the clouds too much, trying to focus in on real phenomena... is a really important thing to learn." (more)



Núñez, Rafael, and Fias, Wim. (2015). "Ancestral Mental Number Lines: What Is the Evidence?." Cognitive Science.
Over the last two decades substantial efforts have been made to investigate the question of whether the building blocks of human mathematical concepts ultimately have their origins in biological evolution. A relevant case study is the “mental number line” hypothesis, which states that numbers are represented in the brain as spatial entities along a mental line, yielding behavioral manifestations. Some developmental (de Hevia & Spelke, 2009, 2010), cross-cultural (Dehaene, Izard, Spelke, & Pica, 2008a), and comparative (Drucker & Brannon, 2014) studies have suggested that number-to-space mappings—underlying mental number lines—are biologically endowed universals, emerging independently of language and culture. Recently, going further, Rugani, Vallortigara, Priftis, and Regolin (2015) have argued that newborn domestic chicks (Gallus gallus) map numbers to space resembling humans’ mental number line, and they claimed that “spatial mapping of numbers from left to right may be a universal cognitive strategy available soon after birth” (p. 536). After training newborn chicks to circumnavigate a centered panel depicting a target numerosity (5 elements for some chicks, 20 for others), the researchers allowed the chicks to explore an environment containing two panels—to the left and to the right, displaying identical numerosities either smaller or greater than the target (2 or 8 elements, and 8 or 32, respectively). The authors reported that around 70% of the time the chicks preferred the left panel when the numerosity was smaller than the target and the right one when it was greater. They interpreted these results as evidence that there is a left-to-right number-to-space mapping in newborn chicks that resembles humans’ mental number line. But do the data really support these claims?
Creel, S. C. (In press). Ups and downs in auditory development: Preschoolers’ sensitivity to pitch contour and timbre. Cognitive Science Journal.
Much research has explored developing sound representations in language, but less work addresses developing representations of other sound patterns. This study examined preschool children’s musical representations using two different tasks: discrimination and sound–picture association. Melodic contour—a musically relevant property—and instrumental timbre, which is (arguably) less musically relevant, were tested. In Experiment 1, children failed to associate cartoon characters to melodies with maximally different pitch contours, with no advantage for melody preexposure. Experiment 2 also used different-contour melodies and found good discrimination, whereas association was at chance. Experiment 3 replicated Experiment 2, but with a large timbre change instead of a contour change. Here, discrimination and association were both excellent. Preschool-aged children may have stronger or more durable representations of timbre than contour, particularly in more difficult tasks. Reasons for weaker association of contour than timbre information are discussed, along with implications for auditory development.
Cooperrider, K., Slotta, J., and Núñez, R. (2016). Uphill and Downhill in a Flat World: The Conceptual Topography of the Yupno House. Cognitive Science.
Speakers of many languages around the world rely on body-­‐based contrasts (e.g. left/right) for spatial communication and cognition. Speakers of Yupno, a language of Papua New Guinea’s mountainous interior, rely instead on an environment-­‐based uphill/downhill contrast. Body-­‐based contrasts are as easy to use indoors as outdoors, but environment-­‐ based contrasts may not be. Do Yupno speakers still use uphill/downhill contrasts indoors and, if so, how? We report three studies on spatial communication within the Yupno house. Even in this Hlat world, uphill/downhill contrasts are pervasive. However, the terms are not used according to the slopes beyond the house’s walls, as reported in other groups. Instead, the house is treated as a microworld, with a "conceptual topography" that is strikingly reminiscent of the physical topography of the Yupno valley. The phenomenon illustrates some of the distinctive properties of environment-­‐based reference systems, as well as the universal power and plasticity of spatial contrasts.
Pajak, B., Creel, S. C., & Levy, R. (In press). Difficulty in learning similar-sounding words: a developmental stage or a general property of learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.
How are languages learned, and to what extent are learning mechanisms similar in infant native-language (L1) and adult second-language (L2) acquisition? In terms of vocabulary acquisition, we know from the infant literature that the ability to discriminate similar-sounding words at a particular age does not guarantee successful word–meaning mapping at that age (Stager & Werker, 1997). However, it is unclear whether this difficulty arises from developmental limitations of young infants (e.g., poorer working memory) or whether it is an intrinsic part of the initial word learning, L1 and L2 alike. In this study, we show that adults of particular L1 backgrounds—just like young infants—have difficulty learning similar-sounding L2 words that they can nevertheless discriminate perceptually. This suggests that the early stages of word learning, whether L1 or L2, intrinsically involve difficulty in mapping similar- sounding words onto referents. We argue that this is due to an interaction between 2 main factors: (a) memory limitations that pose particular challenges for highly similar-sounding words, and (b) uncertainty regarding the language’s phonetic categories, because the categories are being learned concurrently with words. Overall, our results show that vocabulary acquisition in infancy and adulthood shares more similarities than previously thought, thus supporting the existence of common learning mechanisms that operate throughout the life span.

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  • Speech Production Adaptation to Individual Speakers
    When speaking to another person, we tailor our speech production based on information we know about that person: for example, you probably don't use the same vocabulary with a professor as you do with a 2-year-old. This project will investigate how specific this adaptation in the speech production system is. ...
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