How do we come to know the world? Susan Gelman's research examines this question by exploring the roots of human cognition as it develops in early childhood.
Contrary to classic theories of human learning, her work has found that young children readily consider hidden, internal, abstract entities in numerous domains of thought.
Gelman, professor of psychology and linguistics and former interim dean of LSA, directs the University of Michigan Conceptual Development Lab, which conducts research on children's language and thought.
She was recently honored with the university's highest professorial title, Distinguished University Professor. She will present her inaugural lecture, "The Non-Obvious Foundations of Human Thought," at 4 p.m. Monday in Rackham Amphitheatre.
Gelman was a graduate student in psychology when she had a lightbulb moment. She had designed an experiment to assess how young children think about categories that extend beyond appearances (for example, snakes include garter snakes and cobras, but exclude legless lizards)
Before testing children at a local preschool, she first tried out the task with the daughter of a classmate. On trial after trial that included striking appearance-reality conflicts (legless lizards, leaf-insects, "fool's gold" (pyrite), flying bats, etc.), this kindergartener confidently made predictions about how the items would behave based on their labels — not their appearances.
"At one point, she stopped and patiently explained to me, 'You know, all snakes look a little bit same, and a little bit different, but inside they're the same'," says Gelman.
That sophistication of thought left a lasting impression on Gelman.
"I thought that was really impressive," she says. "I doubt anyone had ever told her that, in so many words. She apparently had come to the conclusion by reflecting on why different snakes can all be the same thing, even if they didn't look alike."
Read the full article "Susan Gelman to talk on how humans glean knowledge" at The Record.