Research in the Experience and Cognition lab explores the mind in context: how linguistic, cultural, and bodily experiences influence the ways people think, feel, learn, and make decisions, on multiple timescales. By studying how people with different experiences come to think differently, we can better understand the processes by which interactions with the physical and social world enable people to realize and exceed their innate cognitive endowments.
We use a variety of methods: from analyses of spontaneous gesture to Virtual Reality, multimodal psychophysics, neuroimaging (fMRI, EEG), studies in brain injury patients, and neurostimulation (TMS, tDCS). To track effects of experience over time, we have studied infants and children as well as adults. To test cognitive diversity across languages and cultures, my collaborators and I have conducted fieldwork on 5 continents.
To identify experiential factors that shape our minds, one strategy we use is to test for systematic differences in brain or behavior caused by separable streams of physical and social experience: that is, to test for linguistic relativity, cultural relativity, and what I call by analogy bodily relativity.
I have developed new experimental methods and theoretical frameworks for investigating how experience shapes our brains and minds. These include a psychophysical paradigm for testing linguistic relativity without using words, a new theory of how culture shapes our conceptions of time, and a proposal about relationships between body and mind, the body-specificity hypothesis, which has now been validated by more than 60 published studies on the neural and cognitive bases of language, memory, mental imagery, object representation, and emotion.
This research demonstrates the diversity of the human cognitive repertoire. At the same time, it suggests a reconciliation between “universalist” and “relativist” views. Experience shapes our brains and minds through processes of learning and inference that may be universal. Cognitive diversity arises when these processes operate in distinctive physical and social contexts.
Beyond revealing the processes by which brains and minds develop and change, explorations of cognitive diversity can lead to a more flexible and inclusive understanding of human nature – an understanding that will emerge from studying a broader spectrum of humans than has been represented by the canon of cognitive science.