CEU Cognitive Science Professors Win Over €11 Million in ERC Grants

January 15, 2014

Researchers in CEU's Department of Cognitive Science will receive €11 million in grants from the European Research Council's Synergy and Consolidator Grant programs. Meant to combine the expertise and research of small groups of experts, a €9.6 million Synergy Grant was awarded to CEU's Gyorgy Gergely, Gunther Knoblich, and Dan Sperber. They will study cultural knowledge transmission, focusing on non-verbal ways that humans “pass on” culture through generations. The Consolidator Grant is meant to enable excellent, independent researchers to consolidate their own research teams and to develop their most innovative ideas across the European Research Area. CEU's Natalie Sebanz was awarded a €1.9 million Consolidator Grant to explore human collaboration and the acquisition of expertise.

CEU Professors (left to right) Gyorgy Gergely, Dan Sperber, and Gunther Knoblich win a 9.6 million euro ERC Synergy Grant. Image credit: CEU

Professors Gergely, Knoblich, and Sperber, together with their colleague Josep Call, director of the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, will complete their project titled “Constructing Social Minds: Coordination, Communication, and Cultural Transmission” aims to provide a new perspective on the uniqueness of human culture. The 13 winning Synergy projects were chosen from a pool of 449 applications across all scientific disciplines, and fund 45 world-leading scientists in 11 European countries. The prestigious Synergy Grants are given to top researchers in all disciplines for groundbreaking research projects that significantly advance the frontiers of our knowledge.

“Human cognition reflects the necessities of living in social groups transmitting cultural knowledge. Human minds are richly and deeply, social minds,” the researchers stressed in their proposal. “Working together we aim to better understand social minds by testing a new integrated theory with innovative methodologies.”

The CEU-led project will explore the uniqueness of human culture and how it is transmitted through generations. Studying social behavior in infants, adult, and non-human primates, the researchers will tackle the question: What makes humans capable of developing cultures that are uniquely rich, complex, and accumulative?

CEU Cognitive Science Associate Professor Natalie Sebanz's project “JAXPERTISE" will

CEU Associate Professor of Cognitive Science Natalie Sebanz wins a large ERC Consolidator Grant. Image credit: CEU

explore the mechanisms that allow human collaboration and the acquisition of expertise. The ERC selected 312 top scientists in its first Consolidator Grant competition, awarding these mid-career scientists a total of nearly €575 million. The ERC Consolidator Grant scheme targets researchers with seven to twelve years’ experience after their PhD.

Collaboration is a hallmark of human life and our achievements are, to a large extent, joint achievements that require the coordination of two or more individuals. Piano duets and tangos, bridges and towers, as well as complex technical and medical operations rely on and exist because of collaborative actions. In recent years, research has begun to identify the basic mechanisms enabling human collaboration. A key insight has been that understanding collaboration involves not only an understanding of people’s tendencies to cooperate or defect, but also requires a detailed investigation of the mechanisms enabling moment-to-moment interpersonal coordination.

Previous work has studied these mechanisms by focusing on simple tasks that can be performed together without much practice. However, a striking aspect of human joint action is the expertise interacting partners acquire together. How people acquire such joint expertise is still poorly understood. Sebanz's project will break new ground by identifying the behavioral, cognitive, and neural mechanisms underlying the learning of joint action. Projects results have the potential of impacting a variety of fields, including the development of autonomous robots designed to collaborate with humans; the development of social training interventions designed to overcome social deficits in disorders like autism; and cognitive anthropology research on cultural practices involving group rituals and teaching.

Over the past seven years, CEU has been the host institution to nine ERC grantees. The Department of Cognitive Science currently hosts four ERC grants: an Advanced Grant (2010), a Starting Grant (2011), a Consolidator Grant (2013), and a Synergy Grant (2013). For more information on the Department of Cognitive Science, visit http://cognitivescience.ceu.hu. For more information on ERC grants, visit http://erc.europa.eu