Funded Grants

The Development of Higher-Order Cognition: Words, Categories, and Concepts

In the first few years of life, children accomplish seemingly impossible developmental feats in human cognition. Children learn one or more languages, acquire categories and complex concepts, and generate a broad understanding of the world. Given that children’s early experiences are the foundation for their later learning, researchers, including myself, have sought to elucidate the mechanisms that allow children to learn from these experiences.

My research approach to studying children’s word, category, and concept learning is two-fold. First, I use a bottom-up approach to understand cognitive development. That is, I have been interested in how basic cognitive processes, such as attention and memory mechanisms, give rise to the emergence of higher-order cognition. Children enter the world with only basic cognitive capacities; my work has sought to understand how these basic capacities are used as building blocks for later learning. My work has shown that lower-level processes that historically have been argued to be constraints on cognition are actually critical mechanisms for facilitating cognitive development. For instance, forgetting has been argued to constrain children’s learning, but my research has demonstrated that forgetting drives the abstraction of relevant and irrelevant information.

The second part of my research approach is to examine interactions between learning words and categories. That is, once children learn new words, how does this affect the development of higher-order cognition? My general hypothesis is this: words have inductive potential; learning words can help children to acquire new categories and concepts which, in turn, helps them learn more words. For example, knowing “color” may help children learn the words for specific colors, but it may also help them induce color as a relevant grouping dimension on a nonverbal task. These word and category learning processes result in bi-directional interactions in the development of higher-order cognition.

My future work will use several research methods to study lower-level processes in word, category, and concept learning, and interactions of higher-order cognition. My lab will tap into what and how children learned with a multi-method approach, such as by behavioral testing, standardized testing, longitudinal studies, and eye-tracking. Critically, my lab will focus on developing new technologies for answering questions that require fine-grained, day-to-day learning trajectories in language and cognitive development. For instance, my colleagues and I are designing an app that will allow parents, teachers, and clinicians to document milestones in language and cognitive development, such as when children first comprehend or produce new words. The long-term goal of this work is to make the app freely available to the public, eventually leading to a large data corpus from which researchers can answer long-standing questions in language and thought.