21st Century Science Initiative Grant: Understanding Human Cognition
Until about the sixth month, human infants cannot grasp. Until the ninth month, they cannot crawl. Until the twelfth month, they cannot speak. Yet, by the end of their first year, infants have amassed an immense amount of information about the world. They categorize species of animals, discriminate facial emotion expressions, and follow caregivers’ instructions. By adolescence, humans have mastered reading, calculation, and decision making about peer interactions. This rapid change has led many to postulate that humans possess innate knowledge and/or specified modules for cognition. How else can such complexity emerge? The alternative theory, which guides my work, is that the human system, beginning in the postnatal period, is capable of extracting information from the environment for subsequent processing, learning, and storage. Development then proceeds hierarchically and continuously. Acquisition of new information is supported and constrained by what was previously learned. Complex cognitive and perceptual trajectories emerge from this interplay.
My laboratory examines information gathering skills that function early in ontogeny and the impact of their development on cognition and perception. Shifts of eye gaze provide even newborns a rich information about the world. Visual selective attention-guided eye movements are evident by the third month and develop into adolescence. We have identified a role for visual selective attention (VSA) development in efficient sampling from cluttered scenes, and found that this bootstraps object and face perception. This crucial link corroborates the notion that building block mechanisms, like VSA, contribute to development of elements vital to the human perceptual experience. Yet critical questions remain unanswered.
How does VSA interact with memory to support processes like generalization? Evidence points to a role for VSA in memory efficiency beginning in infancy and spanning development. We examine the mechanisms by which efficient sampling contributes to encoding of information, and to binding across a variety of similar experiences to guide and shape knowledge. What are the experiential variables that power the early emergence of VSA, and what happens if they are disrupted? I propose that cumulative development of the processing of visual features drives development of VSA. This hypothesis implies that disrupted vision, as in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has the potential to result in atypical VSA. Indeed, individuals with ASD have enhanced attention to trivial visual details. Thus, understanding the experiential variables that catalyze VSA development has the potential to contribute to understanding a pivotal disruption in information gathering skills in ASD. The long-term goal is to develop an intervention strategy where changes in VSA are determined by training programs that alter sensitivity to visual input in infants at high risk for the disorder.