Learning Structural Regularities at Birth: an Optical Imaging Study

October 7, 2010

On 22 September Judit Gervain, Research Scientist, Universite Paris Descartes, presented her work on using near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) to study the language abilities of newborn infants; specifically, whether infants can learn structural regularities, which are fundamental for the acquisition of language. Gervain, who lectured at the Cognitive Development Center (CDC), stated that although there is increasing evidence that older infants are able to learn such regularities using different mechanisms (Marcus et al. 1999, Gomez and Gerken 1999), it is not known, however, whether these abilities are available at birth or whether they emerge later during development and their neural basis is also unexplored. Gervain discussed experiments that examined whether infants are able to learn identity‑based regularities (e.g. ABB "mubaba", AAB "babamu", ABA "bamuba" etc.). Infants can discriminate these patterns from random ABC controls (e.g. "mubage"), 

and are able to encode the identity relation as well as its serial position (i.e. discriminate AAB from ABB). This ability appears to be specific to speech stimuli, and does not apply more broadly to other auditory stimuli, e.g. piano tones. The results of these experiments 

allow better understanding of the mechanisms and the corresponding neural circuits underlying early speech perception and language acquisition.


The Cognitive Development Center also held lectures on 8 and 17 September. On 8 September, Jean Mandler, Distinguished Research Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, and Visiting Professor, University College London, visited the Cognitive Development Center (CDC) to give a talk on the spatial foundation of the conceptual system, and how infants build more complex concepts from this system. A model of early concept formation was presented by Mandler that accounts for conceptual activity in the first year of life, and describes how the increasing complexity of conceptual development comes about. It also predicts the order in which new types of information accrue to the core conceptual system. The model lists a small set of primitives used by a domain-general mechanism of perceptual meaning analysis (PMA) to redescribe motion and other spatio-temporal information into a schematic spatial form that results in potentially accessible concepts (Mandler, 2004). This mechanism avoids having to posit separate innate domain-specific modules. Combinations of the primitives it operates with are sufficient to provide the first meanings used to understand events, make inferences, and categorize objects into different kinds. Only as infants begin to move themselves around in the world and act on objects do internal feelings of force get integrated into existing spatially based concepts involving causation, and internal feelings of trying get integrated into existing spatially based concepts of goal-directed behavior. Concepts of knowing and emotions, as well as sensory concepts such as colors, are still later acquisitions because of lack of a structured spatial core into which the relevant unstructured internal experiences can be integrated. In these cases language may be required to provide conceptual descriptions.

On 17 September, Tania Singer, Professor, Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, University of Zurich, presented her research on the developmental and neuronal basis of social emotions and egocentricity bias. Singer provided a short overview about fMRI studies investigating empathic brain responses elicited by the observation of others in pain, and showed how these empathic brain responses are modulated by several contextual, stimulus intrinsic and person-specific factors. She highlighted the important role of anterior insula cortex for empathy and interoceptive awareness. In addition, a series of behavioral, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) experiments was presented by the professor, which focused on the investigation of emotional egocentricity bias and the ability for self-other distinction. Finally, Tania Singer presented her work on the development of social emotions, behavioral control and egocentricity bias.