REU Participant Support Costs for SP0027134

Project: Research project

Project Details


Relational ability is central to higher-order learning and reasoning, and is arguably the critical difference between human cognitive capacity and that of other species (Penn et al., 2008). The goal of the proposed research is to trace the development of relational processing over the first year of life. We focus on what is arguably the simplest and most basic relation: the same-different relation. The starting point for this proposal is a recent demonstration that 7- and 9-month-old infants can form abstract same-different relations, and apply them to novel pairs (Ferry, et al., 2014). Further, there is continuity in the characteristics of relational learning across development. As in older children, comparing across exemplars facilitates abstracting the common relation and focusing on individual objects disrupts relational processing. This result opens several new avenues for investigation, each of which bears on fundamental questions concerning the origin and evolution of higher-order cognition in humans. The proposed research will identify the scope of infants’ ability to detect same-different relations. Certainly infants do not have the same higher-order relational abilities found in children and adults. A more plausible hypothesis is that there are specific learning conditions that facilitate relational comparison and others that hinder performance. Ferry et al. (2014) demonstrated that under ideal circumstances, when the exemplars were spatially aligned, infants could generalize the same-different relation. This provides evidence that the potential for detecting same-different relations may emerge early in life. The next question is how do relational abilities change over development? Pursuing this question requires an examination of younger infants and infants’ performance with a broader range of stimuli to ascertain the extent of the facilitative effect of comparison and detrimental effect of object focus. Another questions is: how does language influence relational learning? Work on children and adults shows that language is a powerful mediator in learning and using relations thereby facilitating the analogical processing. By hearing the expression “These are the same” applied to a pair of objects, adult speakers of English may come to perceive similarities among the objects. Ferry et al. (2014) demonstrates that sensitivity to same and different may emerge before much language experience and then the ability may be enhanced or diminished by subsequent language experience. Mapping out the influence of language labels over the course of early development will reveal information critical to understanding analogical processes in general. The experiments will also investigate the nature of these effects by testing whether infants can use relational matching to guide their actions. The goal of the current proposal is to address these questions by considering the influence of a broad range of learning conditions on infants ranging from 2 months to 2 years. The intellectual merit of the proposed studies is first to identify the ontogeny of relational learning processes by clarifying the nature of this effect in the first months of life, and tracing its developmental trajectory over the first year; second to consider the role of language in learning relations. These findings will begin to characterize the interplay between language and early relational ability. Specifically, labeling relations may facilitate infants’ relational learning for the labeled pairs, as in children (Christie & Gentner, in press; Richland, et al., 2007). A
Effective start/end date7/1/146/30/18


  • National Science Foundation (BCS-1423917)


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