Animals act to live. Unlike plants with roots and leaves, we must move around to close the gap between ourselves and the things we need (food, water, safety, etc.). Poetically, this means that you, an animal, are constantly being “the change you wish to see in the world”: we imagine possibilities for making differences that matter, and through our actions we turn them into fact.
Now, ‘imagining possibilities’ surely means something very different for humans and hummingbirds–and that is a mystery perhaps too deep to tap. But ‘imagining possibilities’ also means something very different for 3-year-olds and 8-year-olds, and that we can study with experiments in the lab. When children play and imagine things, what types of new possibilities do they tend to explore? Which real-world rules do they keep, and which do they bend? How do they choose to bend them? Can we characterize, formally, the manner in which children distinguish actualities (facts) from non-actualities (mere possibilities and ideations)? How do these abilities change with age and experience?
Viewed from a “human development” perspective, these questions are first of all: very fun. They are also clearly important for understanding adult cognition. After all, major aspects of our shared social reality–like money, property, and summer vacations–might well be characterized as elaborate forms of ‘games,’ ‘play,’ and ‘pretense’ writ large.
But viewed through an ecological lens, and from the perspectives of the evolution of cognition and philosophy of mind, the developmental elaboration of children’s imaginative abilities forms a rich case study for understanding the ways in which animals become skilled at recognizing and generating opportunities for effective action in their environment: doing what they need to do in order to turn the world their way. By exploring ways to model these processes computationally, we may gain insight into the types of universal, formal structures that enable any cognitive system to solve these most (biologically) deep and important problems (indeed, perhaps the very problems that cognition evolved to solve).
About me: I’m a developmental psychologist with a background in philosophy. I earned my PhD from UC Berkeley in 2020, and my expertise is in early causal reasoning. My dissertation research in Alison Gopnik’s lab investigated 2-5-year-olds' abilities to learn from causal “difference-making” evidence to infer and generate novel effects and solutions to problems. I continue to work with the Gopnik lab during my postdoc. I also collaborate with Caren Walker and colleagues at UCSD on projects investigating children’s abilities to draw inferences from variability information and to reason about multiple possibilities. When I’m not thinking about thinking, I enjoy hiking, surfing, reading, painting, and baking. I am working remotely during 2020-2021 from Berkeley, Bolinas, and a 1993 Toyota Hiace camper van.
PhD in Cognitive Science, 2020