How do we come to know the world? Susan Gelman’s research examines this question by exploring the roots of human cognition as it develops in early childhood.

Contrary to classic theories of human learning, her work has found that young children readily consider hidden, internal, abstract entities in numerous domains of thought.

Susan Gelman

Gelman, professor of psychology and linguistics and former interim dean of LSA, directs the University of Michigan Conceptual Development Lab, which conducts research on children’s language and thought.

She was recently honored with the university’s highest professorial title, Distinguished University Professor. She will present her inaugural lecture, “The Non-Obvious Foundations of Human Thought,” at 4 p.m. Monday in Rackham Amphitheatre.

Gelman was a graduate student in psychology when she had a lightbulb moment. She had designed an experiment to assess how young children think about categories that extend beyond appearances (for example, snakes include garter snakes and cobras, but exclude legless lizards)

Before testing children at a local preschool, she first tried out the task with the daughter of a classmate. On trial after trial that included striking appearance-reality conflicts (legless lizards, leaf-insects, “fool’s gold” (pyrite), flying bats, etc.), this kindergartener confidently made predictions about how the items would behave based on their labels — not their appearances. 

“At one point, she stopped and patiently explained to me, ‘You know, all snakes look a little bit same, and a little bit different, but inside they’re the same’,” says Gelman.

That sophistication of thought left a lasting impression on Gelman.

“I thought that was really impressive,” she says. “I doubt anyone had ever told her that, in so many words. She apparently had come to the conclusion by reflecting on why different snakes can all be the same thing, even if they didn’t look alike.”

Throughout her career, Gelman has focused much of her research and scholarship on how we as humans construct our knowledge about the world. Although the standard answer is that children learn from building upon sensory and perceptual experiences, Gelman thinks that there is more to the story.

“We are the only species that creates culture and science, the only species with religious practices and beliefs, … the only ones who develop a formal logic,” Gelman says. “All these skills and behaviors require an ability to think beyond what is immediately observable.

“And from the start, children expect that the world is more than superficial experiences. They expect nonobvious structure to the world, and that guides their learning and language acquisition. Some of children’s earliest concepts — ownership, fairness, contamination — are also non-obvious or abstract.”

Gelman, who began as an assistant professor at U-M in 1984, explores cognitive development, category formation and use, causal reasoning, and relationships between language and thought in her work.

She is the author of more than 200 scholarly publications, including the prize-winning “The Essential Child,” and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous awards from psychological associations.

As the Heinz Werner Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Linguistics, Gelman’s lecture will focus on the hidden, internal, abstract entities that influence children’s thinking, and she will discuss their implications for the social nature of cognition and the foundation of human thought.

 “I feel deeply indebted to Michigan for supporting and nurturing my career over the past 30 years, so it’s especially meaningful and wonderful to receive this honor,” Gelman says.

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