MBB Junior Symposium 2010: Concepts and Conceptualization


Monday, August 30, 2010, 9:00am to 3:30pm


William James Hall, 33 Kirkland St.

The MBB junior symposium is an all-day meeting that features talks by and discussions with a variety of scholars on an interdisciplinary theme in mind/brain/behavior. The symposium will include speaker presentations, a lunch with speakers and MBB faculty, discussion groups, and closing panel. It is open to MBB juniors and those MBB seniors who did not attend the 2009 symposium. It is required of students pursuing the Certificate in MBB (students in honors MBB tracks) and is also open to students pursuing or considering a secondary field in MBB.

Eligible students, please register at the bottom of the page by Wednesday, August 18th.
This event is not open to the public.

What kinds of psychological states are involved in cognition? When we identify things as belonging to kinds (basic kinds, species, or social or action categories), what kinds of representations do we use? Do we rely only on representations of superficial characteristics, or do we rely on representations of further structure? What is the role of simulation in conceptual activity? For instance, does recognizing something as a bicycle involve simulating bike-riding?

9:00 am Registration (outside William James Hall 105)
9:15 Welcome and Introduction, Susanna Siegel (William James Hall 105)
9:30 Bernhard Nickel
The Theoretical and Conceptual Structure of Generics
10:30 Lawrence Barsalou Grounding the Human Conceptual System

11:30 Susan Carey

The Origins of Concepts
12:30 pm Lunch (William James 1550)
1:30 Discussion Groups
Group A - Moshe Bar and Sebastian Watzl - William James 1305
Group B - Lawrence Barsalou and Albert Galaburda - William James 950
Group C - Susan Carey and Bernhard Nickel - William James 474
Group D - Susanna Siegel and Farid Masrour - William James 6
2:30 Closing Panel (William James 105)

Lawrence W. Barsalou
Samuel Cander Dobbs Professor of Psychology, Emory University

Grounding the Human Conceptual System
The human conceptual system contains categorical knowledge that supports online processing (perception, categorization, inference, action) and offline processing (memory, language, thought). Semantic memory, the dominant theory of the conceptual system, typically portrays it as modular and amodal. According to this approach, amodal symbols represent category knowledge in a modular system, separate from the brain’s modal systems for perception, action, and internal states (e.g., interoception, introspection, emotion). Alternatively, the conceptual system can be viewed as non-modular and modal, sharing representational mechanisms with the brain’s modal systems. On a given occasion, multimodal information about a category's members is reenacted (simulated) across relevant modalities to represent it conceptually. Additionally, the conceptual system can be viewed as emergent, situated, and dynamical. Misperceptions of this approach include viewing it as non-nativist, non-symbolic, completely dependent on sensory-motor experience, and incapable of representing abstract concepts. These theoretical issues and related empirical evidence, both behavioral and neural, will be reviewed.

Susan Carey
Henry A. Morss Jr. and Elizabeth W. Morss Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

The Origin of Concepts
The human conceptual repertoire is a unique phenomenon on earth, posing a formidable challenge to the disciplines of cognitive science. Alone among animals, humans can ponder the causes and cures of pancreatic cancer or global warming. How are we to account for the human capacity to create concepts such as electron, cancer, infinity, galaxy, and wisdom? As a matter of logic, a theory of conceptual development must have three components. First, it must characterize the innate representational repertoire—the representations that are the input to subsequent learning processes. Second, it must describe how the initial stock of representations differs from the adult conceptual system. Third, it must characterize the learning mechanisms that achieve the transformation of the initial into the final state. I will defendthree theses. With respect to the initial state, contrary to historically important thinkers such as the British empiricists, Quine, and Piaget, as well as many contemporary scientists, the innate stock of primitives is not limited to sensory, perceptual or sensory-motor representations; rather, there are also innate conceptual representations. With respect to developmental change, contrary to continuity theorists such as Fodor, Pinker, Macnamara and others, conceptual development consists of episodes of qualitative change, resulting in systems of representation that are more powerful than and sometimes incommensurable with those from which they are built. With respect to a learning mechanism that achieves conceptual discontinuity, I offer Quinian bootstrapping.

Bernhard Nickel
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University

The Theoretical and Conceptual Structure of Generics
A lot of our everyday knowledge of the world is encoded in what look like rough-and-ready summaries: "ravens are black," "tigers have stripes," "glasses are fragile." It's easy to come up with exceptions to the rule. As it turns out, our use of such generalizations is very sophisticated, and studying it promises to teach us a lot about the structure of scientific theories and the structure of concepts. This talk aims at a bird's eye view of the connections between philosophy, linguistics, and psychology.


Albert Galaburda
Emily Fisher Landau Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School

Edward Kravitz
George Packer Berry Professor of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School

Susanna Siegel
Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University

Robert Stickgold
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School