New York Times profiles Harvard cognitive psych prof Elizabeth Spelke and BHN baby enrolls in one of her experiment

The Times’ “Profiles in Science” feature seems to favor Harvard types. Today’s offers a video and story on cognitive psychologist Elizabethe Spelke. If you’ve had a baby in the Boston area any time in the past 15 years or so, you probably got a letter from a lab like hers asking if scientists could use your tot for research. (We took her up on it — more on that later.)

From the Times:

Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they’re cute but because they’re root. “I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,” she said, “and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.”       

But the adult mind is far too complicated, Dr. Spelke said, “too stuffed full of facts” to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born.       

Decoding Infants’ Gaze

Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet. “More than any scientist I know, Liz combines theoretical acumen with experimental genius,” Dr. Carey said. Nancy Kanwisher, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., put it this way: “Liz developed the infant gaze idea into a powerful experimental paradigm that radically changed our view of infant cognition.”       

Note that the story includes a comment from Steven Pinker — another Harvard prof  profiled by the paper — who famously debated Spelke over the whether gender differences are learned or, to some degree, innate. Also note that The New Yorker profiled Spelke in 2006.  

Bombarded with letters from Spelke and other researchers after my son was born, I decided enroll my son in one of her studies. He got a shirt and a tippy cup. I got a story, which ran in The Boston Globe.


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