People who grow up under stressful conditions tend to score lower than their peers on a variety of cognitive tests (e.g., IQ, inhibition). These findings have led to the predominant view that chronic stress impairs cognition. However, this is not the whole story. I recently theorized and provided evidence showing that these same individuals may also develop enhanced cognitive abilities for solving problems in high-adversity contexts. This specialization hypothesis predicts that people from harsh environments might show improved performance on tasks matching recurrent problems in those environments. One goal of my research is to test this prediction in people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and to uncover a high-resolution map of the cognitive skills and abilities of stress-adapted youth and adults. This work has broad social implications: the better we understand stress-adapted minds, bodies, and brains—including their strengths—the more effectively we can tailor education, jobs, and interventions to fit their needs and potentials.
My research program is premised on the principle that organisms adapt to their environments over multiple timescales: across generations by natural selection, and within lifetimes through development and learning. These processes are nested. That is, natural selection results in developmental and learning systems, which in turn tailor individuals to their physical and social environments based on experience (including adverse ones). Individuals also select and create their own environments, altering current ecologies and modifying selection pressures on future generations. In my theoretical research, I use mathematical modeling to study these interrelated processes.
Development and evolution are inextricably linked. All phenotypes result from development. Therefore, natural selection can only shape phenotypes by modifying developmental systems, i.e., the array of factors and processes that give rise to phenotypes. This insight has deep implications. For example, rather than viewing ‘human nature’ as a fixed set of traits universally shared among all members of a species, we may conceive of human nature as a composite of interacting developmental systems. Key questions include: how does natural selection shape developmental and learning mechanisms depending on environmental conditions? How do these mechanisms adapt individuals to local conditions based on experience? Modeling these questions provides insight into species-typical development, individual differences, and cultural variation. In the coming years, I will extend my theoretical research by making the statistical structure of the environment in my models more dynamic, creating scope for learning on shorter timescales. I will achieve this by including reinforcement learning into my models, thus integrating three adaptive processes: evolution, development, and learning. This research will unify processes operating on different timescales into a single coherent framework.
Scholars working in related fields benefit from each other’s work. In my developmental studies of human cognition and behavior, I draw on ideas, methods, and findings from diverse fields, including evolutionary biology, animal behavior, anthropology, and machine learning, and share the fruits of my labor with these fields. The bridges I build generate synergies, which enable discoveries. My ambition is to contribute to a strong, enduring infrastructure that connects the social and biological sciences, to everyone’s benefit.