Stanislas Dehaene was awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science 2008 for his research into the higher cognitive processes, in particular numerical cognition.
Stanislas Dehaene has shown that the ability to estimate amounts — an innate ‘number sense’ that human beings have in common with various other species — forms the basis for our mathematical (abstract reasoning) and arithmetic (calculation) abilities. The latter ability does, however, require a well-developed system of symbols – a language system. Evidence for this duality has been found not only in scientific experiments but also in anthropological research. One example is the language of the Amazonian Mundurukú tribe, which has words for numbers only up to five. The Mundurukú are not able to perform precise calculations with larger numbers, but they can approximate and compare larger amounts.
Dehaene has also conducted important research into reading, the ultimate culturally-determined – and not inborn – skill. He has devised ingenious methods for showing that when we read, we access a complex network in the brain that recognises increasingly larger fragments of words without our being aware of it.
These and other findings have led Dehaene to develop the influential ‘global workspace’ theory of human consciousness, which proposes that our brain uses two different mechanisms in tandem to achieve consciousness.
Examples of key publications
Dehaene, S., The number sense: How the mind creates mathematics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997
Dehaene, S., Spelke, E., Pinel, P, Stanescu, R., Tsivkin, S., Sources of mathematical thinking: Behavioral and brain-imaging evidence. In: Science, 1999; 284: 970-974
Dehaene, S., Naccache, L., Cohen, L., Bihan, D.L., Mangin, J.F., Poline, J.B., Rivière, D., Cerebral mechanisms of word masking and unconscious repetition priming. In: Nature Neuroscience, 2001; 4: 752-758
Pica, P., Lemer, C., Izard, V., Dehaene, S., Exact and approximate arithmetic in an Amazonian indigene group. In: Science 2004; 306: 499-503
Dehaene-Lambertz, G., Hertz-Pannier, L., Dubois, J., Meriaux, S., Roche, A., Sigman, M., Dehaene, S., Functional organization of perisylvian activation during presentation of sentences in preverbal infants. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 2006; 103: 14240-14245.
Stanislas Dehaene was born in Roubaix, France, in 1965 and studied applied mathematics and information science in Paris (1985). In 1989 he obtained his PhD in the cognitive sciences. He became the youngest member of the French Academy of Science in 2005 and in the same year was elected to the chair in Experimental Cognitive Psychology at the prestigious Collège de France. Dehaene is also the Research Director of the Cognitive Neuro-imaging Unit at INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. His previous awards include the Louis D. Prize of the Institut de France and the Gold Medal of the Association Arts-Sciences-Lettres.
Dehaene’s work has been recognised well beyond his own discipline. His book The Number Sense is a success both within and outside the scientific community. Dehaene’s research has resulted in an interactive computer program that helps children with a congenital numeracy problem (dyscalculia) to understand numbers.