Marylyn C. Grabosky Lecture in Psychology and Neuroscience

Inaugural Lecture on Thursday, November 3, 2022
3:30 - 5:00 pm with reception to follow

Thomas Friedman Hall at the David Rubenstein Forum
1201 E. 60th Street
Chicago, Illinois
and via Zoom

This lecture is free and open to the public, but registration is required.  Please RSVP here.

Built to learn: Insights into nature and nurture from studies with people born blind and cultural expertise

Humans are unique among animals both in their advanced shared cognitive capabilities and in their remarkable ability to adapt to diverse environments. Studies with people who are born blind provide insights into the biological and cognitive origins of the human flexibility/specificity sweet-spot. Contrary to the suppositions of early empiricist philosophers, blind and sighted people share rich ‘visual' knowledge, including knowledge of color. Such evidence is inconsistent with accounts of development that emphasize bottom up sensory learning. Instead, blindness illustrates the power of uniquely human social, linguistic and inferential learning. On the other hand, evidence from blindness reveals the remarkable flexibility of the human brain. ‘Visual’ occipital cortices serve drastically different cognitive functions across sighted and congenitally blind people: visual perception in the sighted, higher-order cognition in people born blind. Visual cortex plasticity in blindness suggests ‘wetware pluripotency’ at birth. Blindness is just one example of the human brain adapting to change, supporting cultural inventions such as reading, math and computer programming. I would argue that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ brain. Instead, we are born with a protobrain that is built to learn and adapt to our particular environment.

Picture of Marina Bedny

Marina Bedny, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Johns Hopkins University
 

 

Background

Marina Bedny received a Ph.D. in in Experimental Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005 working with Dr. Sharon Thompson-Schill and my Bachelors in Cognitive Science from Johns Hopkins University in 2001. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School with Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and one at MIT with Dr. Rebecca Saxe. Currently, Dr. Bedny is an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department.

Research interests

Humans stand out among other animals in their ability to tell stories, collaborate with others, solve math equations and design complex machines. Where do these abilities come from? What enables humans to develop a shared repertoire of rich conceptual representations and at the same time adapt to environments as diverse as the Amazonian rainforest and New York City? In particular, how do experience as opposed to intrinsic physiology contribute to building higher-cognitive functions? Our laboratory examines these questions by comparing the minds and brains of people with diverse experiences. A major focus of research in the lab examines adaptation of the human brain to blindness. We examine the cognitive functions of visual cortices in individuals who are blind from birth and people who became blind as adults. We also study knowledge of ‘visual’ concepts (e.g., color and light) in people born blind. Finally, we are interested in how the human brain accommodates cultural knowledge and expertise. Humans are unique in the diversity of skills that they acquire e.g., reading, computer programming. What about the human brain makes this possible? 

Additional events:

  • Thursday, Nov. 3, lunch with speaker for graduate students and postdocs.
  • Friday, Nov. 4, lunch career discussion for undergraduate students.

Please fill out this form if interested in attending the student lunches.

This lecture is made possible by the Marylyn C. Grabosky STEM Education Initiative Fund and is one of two lifetime endowments named in honor of Marylyn Grabosky (1940-2021). Marylyn was an alumna of the University who was a champion of women, education, and STEM education. The Division of the Social Sciences is grateful to Marylyn and her spouse Laura Desmond for generously establishing the Marylyn C. Grabosky Lecture in Psychology and Neuroscience.

If you need accommodations to attend this lecture, please email Kristi Schonwald at kschonwa@uchicago.edu.