New Research Published by CEU’s Department of Cognitive Science

Three new studies from CEU's Department of Cognitive Science were recently published on topics of human communication, ultra-social infants and how great apes learn:

Human expression is open-ended, versatile and diverse, ranging from ordinary language use to painting, from exaggerated displays of affection to micro-movements that aid coordination. The new research, "Expression unleashed: The evolutionary & cognitive foundations of human communication", published in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, which appeared initially online as a preprint for external commentary by Cambridge University Press January 5, addresses such capacities. Senior Researcher Thom Scott-Phillips and Associate Professor Christophe Heintz from CEU's Department of Cognitive Science explain how and why humans, and only humans, evolved the cognitive capacities that, in turn, lead to massive diversity and open-endedness in how humans express themselves and communicate with one another. 

The researchers claim that this expressive diversity is united by an interrelated suite of cognitive capacities, the evolved functions of which are the expression and recognition of informative intentions. Language use is but one of these modes of expression, albeit one of manifestly high importance. They make cross-species comparisons, describe how the relevant cognitive capacities can evolve in a gradual manner, and survey how unleashed expression facilitates not only language use but novel behavior in many other domains too, focusing on the examples of joint action, teaching, punishment and art, all of which are ubiquitous in human societies but relatively rare in other species. Read more here.

In another cognitive science study "Seeing the World From Others' Perspective: 14-Month-Olds Show Altercentric Modulation Effects by Others' Beliefs" in the journal Open Mind: Discoveries in Cognitive Science, researchers Agnes Melinda Kovacs, Associate Rrofessor in CEU's Department of Cognitive Science and Dora Kampis, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of Copenhagen (KU) find that young infants’ search for potential hidden objects is influenced by how many objects another person believes are hidden.

The researchers think such effects can be explained by the ultrasocial nature of humans, which makes us especially attentive to others and spontaneously taking into account their mental states (goals, knowledge, beliefs), even when we should not do so. The novel findings of this study reveal an important feature of human cognition that may be particularly strong in infancy. To learn important knowledge about the world, it is beneficial to rely on other people’s knowledge and perspectives. In very young infants, this reliance on others’ perspective may be so strong that it leads to interesting “mistakes”. Overall, however, strong sensitivity to the social world may play a crucial role in how infants become knowledgeable members of their cultural environment. Read more here.

More recently, the study "Learning from communication versus observation in great apes" was published on February 21 in Scientific Reports, from CEU's Department of Cognitive ScienceEotvos Lorand University (ELTE), the University of St. Andrews, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The research explores whether apes are similar to humans regarding learning capacities when someone is trying to teach them something.

In a world full of complex machines and technical inventions we use day by day, how do humans acquire the knowledge in a fast and efficient way to become competent users of technical devices? When someone actually teaches another how to use a device, while calling attention to the most important actions, they will learn faster than discovering the device on one’s own.

Young children of humans show a preference to learn from communication, which is not surprising, as our culture is based on instances of teaching and educational practices. But what about our closest living relatives, the great apes? This study gave evidence that apes could still have some bias to attribute importance for communication, which might be a precursor for teaching also in their case. Read more here.