Neuroplasticity and Development
How does developmental experience affect the human mind and brain? What is the role of experience in structuring concepts of events, objects and mental states? How are such abstract concepts implemented in neural circuits? Our lab investigates these longstanding philosophical puzzles using the methods of cognitive neuroscience and psychology.
We study the origins and structure of human cognition by comparing the minds and brains of people with different developmental experiences.
To examine the effects of nature and nurture on the human brain, we compare the minds and brains of sighted, congenitally blind and late-blind individuals. Areas of the primate occipital lobe are called “visual cortex” because in sighted people they respond almost exclusively to light. One line of work examines the acquisition of novel functions by visual cortex in blind individuals. In people who are blind, occipital cortex responds to touch, sound and even language. One of our goals is to uncover the cognitive functions that are supported by the occipital cortex in blind people. Are these functions similar to vision? Are they related to the function of nearby cortical tissue? Do the functional subdivisions within occipital cortex mirror organization elsewhere in the brain? We also work with blind and sighted children to study the time-course and mechanisms of cortical plasticity. Visual cortex plasticity provides a window into how genes and experience sculpt cortical function during development.
A second line of work examines how experience contributes to concept formation. We use behavioral and neural measures to study concepts of events, objects and mental states in blind individuals. For example, are there differences between blind and sighted people’s concepts of sight perception (e.g. the meanings of sight verbs such as “stare” and “glance”). What do blind adults know about events that could only be experienced through sight such as “sparkling” and “flashing?” How do blind children acquire such information?