The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has awarded the C.L. de Carvalho-Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science 2016 to Elizabeth Spelke, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge (United States).
The unexpected capacities of an infant’s brain
Elizabeth Spelke received the C.L. de Carvalho-Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science for her pioneering research into the cognitive development of infants.
Her experiments and concepts have drastically altered our understanding of the mind. She demonstrated which parts of the human cognition are already naturally present at birth, which are learnt and when that takes place.
Spelke analysed what, how and when young children learn by studying how they gaze at the world. How do they distinguish social beings from inanimate objects? What is their understanding of numbers and quantities? How do they deal with place and time?
She discovered that the cognitive capacity of young children is larger than had long been assumed. She discovered signs that children have a universal system to process spatial information from a very early age. This system is similar to the one used by laboratory animals such as rats to get their bearings.
She studied how young children select social partners with whom they interact, cooperate and share. As a result, we have learnt more about fundamental processes such as social exclusion and interpersonal conflict.
An important concept in Spelke’s work is ‘core knowledge’: modules enclosed within the brain of every infant that help to recognise objects, as well as to navigate, count and communicate. Spelke argued that the core knowledge of humans is similar to that of animals, but that humans can develop much further because language enables children to link the separate knowledge modules.
This theory explains that although human cognition may be unique, it nevertheless fits within a broad evolutionary perspective. It has implications not only for upbringing, education and psychology, but also for philosophy, anthropology and artificial intelligence, et cetera.
Elizabeth Spelke was born in 1949 in the United States. She gained her bachelor degree in social relations at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts (United States). She studied at Yale University in New Haven (Connecticut) before being awarded a PhD in psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca (New York).
After working for ten years at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, she returned to Cornell in 1986 as Professor of Psychology. In 1996 she returned to Cambridge, first to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, from 2001, to Harvard University. She has also held various guest positions in Paris and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (Maryland).
Spelke is a member of the American National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has received many distinctions and prizes including the Distinguished Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association, the William James Award of the American Psychological Society, the Jean Nicod Prize of the École Normale Supérieure, the Kurt Koffka Medal of the University of Giessen (Germany) and the National Academy of Sciences Prize in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences.