Seminar of the Dept. of Psychology

Precursors of logical reasoning in human infants.

Dott. Nicolò Cesana Arlotti, PhD, Johns Hopkins University, Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences

The capacity of thinking in terms of abstract logical operations is at the core of some of our species’ most powerful abilities. Leveraging a finite set of forms of logical combination, we can productively generate new ideas, form hypotheses about any phenomenon that provokes our curiosity, and build theories that span on domains of countless entities beyond here and now. As we represent the logical relations between our thoughts, we learn not only by observing the way things are but also by appraising the many ways things might be and how they cannot be.

Yet, we know little about the origins of logic in the ontogeny of the mind. What is the foundation of logic in the human mind? Is language the source of our logical capacities? Are learning and education required for logical reasoning to emerge? Can an even infant somehow think logically?

Previous works have mostly investigated the development of logic through the lens of language acquisition, focusing on young children’s comprehension and production of logical connectives (e.g., “or”, “and”, “not”) and natural language quantifiers (e.g., “all”, “every”, “each”). As a result, the preverbal foundation of logical thinking remains uncharted. Indeed, studying abstract reasoning in a population, like infants, with immature verbal, executive, and motor capacities presents severe conceptual and methodological challenges. I will present two lines of research that meet these challenges to address the gap in our knowledge of the origin of logical thinking.

In the first research, I study a precursor of propositional logic in infants’ capacity to draw disjunctive inference: to infer one of many alternatives without direct evidence in its support, but rather based on data that rule out the other alternatives. I will discuss findings suggesting that this kind of inference is in place long before the mastery of the word “or” and that it is an efficient conduit for learning already very early in life.

In the second research, I investigate the precursors of universal quantification, the logical operations supporting the representation that a property or an event applies to a diversity of objects exhaustively (i.e., with no exceptions). I will present an ongoing series of experiments that study how infants, and adults, represent the exhaustivity of visually presented collective and individual actions (e.g., “all the children are chasing a ball” vs. “each child is chasing a ball”).

Mon Oct 25th 2021, 3 PM

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