Psychology professor, fellow partners with humanities researchers


How do we know what we know? Psychology Professor Iris Berent has spent her career studying what allows humans, as a species, to have language. Much of her work has focused on the theory of universal grammar, proposed by linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, which states that the ability to learn language is an innate trait, and is distinct from other traits of human cognition. As a psychologist, Berent studies these ideas in the lab, designing experiments and controls to try to understand if humans have an innate capacity for language.  

This year, Berent has had the honor to take part in the Humanities Center Resident Fellowship Program, a program that brings together scholars from various colleges to discuss a common theme. Hosted by Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities, this year’s theme is “Whose Story?”. As the program’s website describes, “we seek an interdisciplinary, humanistic conversation about how contemporary narratives of identity and experience, belonging and exclusion, are fostered or censored; how criteria of truth, feeling, or opinion are harnessed to assert a narrative’s importance; and how social and cultural institutions mediate the circulation of these narratives.” 

Berent solely represents the College of Science at the fellows’ bi-weekly meetings presenting research and discussing questions around this theme. Upon hearing about the topic, Berent considered that her work may have a connection.  

“Is there something about how we interpret our reality that biases us against this notion of universal grammar particularly?” she asked. “Being trained as a cognitive scientist, this is what we do for a living, we look at what biases people have when they reason. So rather than speculating, let’s go into the lab and test this idea.” 

And that’s exactly what she did with this fellowship. Philosophers have long debated whether knowledge can be innate, but Berent’s work seeks to understand this controversy from a scientific point of view.  

“Maybe there is something innate or inherent to human cognition that biases our understanding of innate knowledge,” she said.  

Through the fellowship program, Berent and psychology graduate student Gwendolyn Sandoboe have been studying how people reason about innate ideas, if biases exist, and where, and with some interesting results, their paper is now under revision on its way to being published.  

The fellowship program provides Berent and 11 other fellows with the opportunity to pursue research, share their work with others, release a related course, and explore the Humanities Center resources. Their work is discussed at bi-weekly meetings with the fellows, at research colloquiums, and at an annual summit to celebrate the theme of the past year. Other fellows’ work includes that on intellectual rights, and violence in favelas in Rio de Janeiro.  

Being part of this fellowship program, Berent has had the opportunity to work with many faculty in different fields such as English, Law, and International Affairs. She hopes that as they continue to work to answer questions around the theme of “Whose Story?”, the fellows can better bridge across disciplines to connect humanities and science together.  

“Thanks to this fellowship, we have started examining how people reason about human nature and what biases they bring to them,” Berent said. “Our results speak to a very long-standing controversy in human intellectual history. I think it’s a really big deal.” 

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