Elizabeth S. Spelke
Spelke’s laboratory focuses on the sources of uniquely human cognitive capacities, especially young children’s prodigious capacities for fast and flexible learning. She studies these capacities by investigating their origins and growth in human infants and children, by considering human cognition in relation to the capacities of diverse nonhuman animals, by comparing the capacities of humans from diverse cultures, and then by collaborating with neuroscientists, computational cognitive scientists, and economists to probe how and why children learn in the ways they do. Current projects investigate: how infants and children (1) recognize objects, extrapolate object motions, and group objects into functional categories such as foods and tools; (2) recognize social agents, reason about their goal-directed actions, mental states, and social relationships, and use other people as sources of information about the world; (3) develop knowledge of natural number and arithmetic, and master number words and symbols; (4) represent space and reason about geometry; and (5) perceive, reason, and learn about the living world of plants and animals. The core of Spelke’s research uses behavioral methods and laboratory-based tasks to investigate the concepts and reasoning of infants, children and adults. Through collaborations with anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, linguists, cognitive neuroscientists, computer scientists, and economists, Spelke has extended her studies of human cognitive capacities to encompass a broader range of populations, settings, methods, and challenges. Her newest work asks whether children’s fast and flexible learning can be illuminated by, and contribute to, research in artificial intelligence; and whether insights into children’s learning can both inform, and grow from, research evaluating measures to enhance the education and development of children worldwide.