Studying what makes us human: language and cognitive development research with children

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Which of our qualities make us uniquely human? This is a question that has been explored for centuries by philosophers such as Plato, Marx, Kant and Wittgenstein. In the 1970s, this question was reframed and organized under the new umbrella term of cognitive science. Cognitive science is the study of intelligence and the mind through the lens of many different disciplines, such as linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and neuroscience. Children are a common subject in cognitive science studies because of the uniquely rapid development their brains go through — by the time a child turns 10, the majority of their neural cell connections have been made. Observing children and how they grow and change has the potential to shed a lot of light on what humans are capable of, and how we’re capable of it.

The Language and Cognitive Development Lab at UC Berkeley focuses on a broad set of questions regarding how our thinking develops during childhood. The lab’s varied research covers topics such as language acquisition, cognitive development, and the appearance and expansion of social skills. The places where these areas of research intersect offer incredibly unique and important insights into the qualities of development; broadly, what makes us human.

“It can give us insight into basically everything human,” explained Monica Ellwood-Lowe, a campus graduate in the lab. “So, all the good and all the bad, how it comes to be and why. And it’s a cool thing to be a part of.”

Ellwood-Lowe’s research focuses on brain development and cognitive growth in children, and looks at how these factors might affect their ability to adapt to barriers and prosper. How do children adapt and succeed when faced with barriers? How does our societal structure contribute to these barriers and successes? She explained that one of her interests lies in exploring what makes children resilient, and while it hasn’t been proven, her sense is that children might be built to be resilient and that it takes quite a lot for them not to be.

 

“It can give us insight into basically everything human,” explained Monica Ellwood-Lowe, a campus graduate in the lab. “So, all the good and all the bad, how it comes to be and why. And it’s a cool thing to be a part of.”

 

“Most of my work is focused on understanding the wide range of early experiences children have,” Ellewood-Lowe said. “And looking at both the larger societal causes of some of these experiences, and also the ways children are able to grow into adaptive adults under such diverse circumstances.”

A typical research day for Ellwood-Lowe doesn’t really exist — she works on many different aspects of the research process. One day, she’s deep in analysis and coding; on the next, she’s interacting and playing with kids. She might also have a day of writing or preparing for presentations. Every day is different, which happens to be something that drew her to research, especially within this discipline.

Ellewood-Lowe’s current study looks at how daily parent-child interactions in families vary depending on specific familial circumstances such as financial security and language exposure and, recently, changes introduced by COVID-19. Other projects at the Language and Cognitive Development Lab explore things such as the linguistic flexibility of children and how these complex systems are acquired so rapidly. This includes looking at the ways that a child’s environment might affect acquisition and designing experiments that will reveal what structures in the mind work to facilitate this.

The lab’s many research projects are indicative of the field’s unusually broad scope. Despite the field’s broadness, however, Ellwood-Lowe believes that cognitive science research as a whole might be facing a common challenge: It’s not studying a diverse enough group of people. Any field of study that aims to describe human beings in a general sense needs to be conscious of where it collects its data and who is doing the collecting, she explained. This isn’t something that scientific disciplines have done very well to date. When your goal is to describe humans, your test pool needs to represent the full spectrum of what ‘human’ is and oftentimes it doesn’t.

 

Despite the field’s broadness, however, Ellwood-Lowe believes that cognitive science research as a whole might be facing a common challenge: It’s not studying a diverse enough group of people.

 

“I think a lot of our questions have been constrained by the backgrounds of the researchers who are asking them,” Ellwood-Lowe said. “And figuring out ways to diversify our field, basically at all levels, is going to be a big push moving forward.”

While the switch to virtual life due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders has presented new obstacles in socially diversifying research such as unequal access to support, for research projects such as Ellwood-Lowe’s, there is potential to move parts of the study to a virtual platform. Ellwood-Lowe’s current data collection is no longer constrained by physical proximity, which has actually allowed test-subject recruitment to pull from a broader and more diverse range of families.

The realities of research during a pandemic have forced researchers like Ellwood-Lowe to confront new and unfamiliar obstacles, including adjusting their perception of what is realistic. That being said, she believes the work that she is doing is important and years down the line, with the help educators and policymakers, could contribute to further supporting children and their families.

In the meantime, she and her peers will continue to find creative ways to continue their work and support each other. “There’s something about people who study kids that I think is really special,” said Ellwood-Lowe. “You have to design studies that meet them where they’re at, which means you have to have a certain level of curiosity and you have to have a certain level of playfulness.”

Contact Megan Sousa at [email protected]