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The Cognition group works within the general approach of cognitive science, which brings the ideas and methods of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, and computer science to bear on the scientific investigation of mental processes and representations. Group members examine language processing at different levels of organization, ranging from speech perception to sentence-level processing, and they examine issues in conceptual structure and cognitive development. Other areas of investigation include executive control and memory, with examination into lifespan development and factors influencing cognitive and brain health.

Specific topics include:

  • Phonological competence and interactions with reading ability
  • Working memory interactions with various levels of structural, conceptual, and discourse knowledge between processing of spoken and written language
  • Effects of culture and experience on categorization, reasoning, and conceptual development
  • Influence of causal knowledge on categorization, memory, and decision making
  • Influence of health factors on brain health, cognition, and academic achievement


State-of-the-art facilities are available for the experimental investigation of a wide range of topics in cognition. The group’s laboratories provide computer-based equipment and facilities for preparing and editing visual and auditory materials, including the editing, analysis, and synthesis of speech; and eye-tracking and other equipment for running online studies of language and cognitive processing. Neuroimaging tools including MRI/fMRI and EEG/ERP are also available, to assess brain structure and function. In addition to laboratory studies, opportunities exist for field research in conceptual structure and reasoning with both children and adults, and in clinical thinking with health care professionals and patients.


Iris Berent
Specialization: Phonology and Reading
Laboratory: Phonology and Reading Laboratory

Dr. Berent’s research examines the nature of linguistic competence and its origins. Her work seeks to identify the constraints shaping the organization of the language system and determine the extent to which the system is specialized for the processing of linguistic information. Current projects examine speakers’ knowledge of universal phonological constraints on syllable structure. Research in her lab also explores the link between phonological competence and reading ability and disability.

John Coley
Specialization: Categorization, Reasoning and Development
Laboratory: CORE Laboratory 

Dr. Coley seeks to answer questions about basic cognitive processes like conceptual organization, reasoning, and conceptual development. How do we organize what we know? How do we use it to make guesses about what we don’t know? How do these processes change with experience? Four themes run through his research. The first, Domain Specificity, is the idea that cognitive processes may differ substantially as a function of what kinds of objects are being thought about. A second theme is that his work tends to take a Comparative Approach, examining how differences in culture and experience impact basic cognitive processes. The third theme stresses the importance of a Developmental Perspective; human cognition is best seen as a dynamic process that is constantly evolving and unfolding over time, rather than a static set of rules or structures. Finally, a stress on Translation means that in addition to doing basic cognitive science, Dr. Coley is interested in the practical, concrete consequences of conceptual organization and reasoning in areas like science education, social conflict, and emotional regulation.

Juliet Y. Davidow
Specialization: Cognitive Neuroscience, Adolescent Cognitive and Brain Development

How do people learn?  How do people use learned information?  Does the way people learn change across development?  Dr. Davidow’s research examines the development of brain systems for learning during adolescence, with an eye towards how typical brain development might progress in a way that best suits adolescents to face the challenges they encounter.  In particular, her work strives to understand the behavioral and neural mechanisms that underlie different kinds of learning, how learning behaviors change during adolescence, and how knowledge formed by different types of learning shapes other cognitive processes like decision-making, memory, and cognitive control.  To understand the mechanisms that give rise to behavior, Dr. Davidow’s lab uses a variety of methodological approaches including experimental tasks adapted from animal behavior paradigms, functional brain imaging techniques, and computational models of psychological processes.  This basic science research program has broad applications for the public in areas including education, juvenile justice, and mental health care.

Charles Hillman
Specialization: Kinesiological Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, Executive Control
Laboratory: Cognitive and Brain Health Laboratory

Dr. Hillman’s research investigates the relationship between physical activity and other health factors (e.g., fitness, adiposity, diet, hydration) on cognitive and brain health during childhood and across the lifespan. Health behaviors during childhood often track throughout life and have implications for later life health and disease (e.g., cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes). However, absent from public health concerns is the relationship between physical inactivity and other health factors on cognitive health in children. Dr. Hillman’s research has found that both acute and chronic participation in physical activity promotes more effective cognitive and brain function, and increased adiposity may reduce cognitive and brain function, especially when challenged with tasks that require greater amounts of executive control. Accordingly, Dr. Hillman uses a translational approach to study basic aspects of cognition and brain in the laboratory and applied aspects of cognition in schools through changes in academic achievement.

Nancy Kim
Specialization: Causal Reasoning, Concepts and Clinical Thinking
Laboratory: Causal Cognition Laboratory

Dr. Kim studies causal and conceptual thinking, reasoning, and decision-making. Her lab group asks how people’s prior background knowledge and beliefs influence the judgments and assumptions they make about new people and situations. In a substantial subset of her work, she attempts to concurrently address basic issues in cognitive science and applied issues in clinical science and practice. From the perspective of cognitive science, her research addresses how causal and explanatory beliefs are mentally represented and organized, and how this representation affects basic cognitive processes such as categorization, memory, judgments, and decision-making. From the perspective of clinical science, she simultaneously examines how people’s prior knowledge, beliefs, and expectations influence the assessment and diagnosis of medical and mental illness, memory for patients’ symptoms and medical information, judgments of psychological abnormality, decisions about treatment, and prejudice toward and stigmatization of patients.

Art Kramer
Specialization: Cognitive and Brain Health and Plasticity, Human Factors, Development and Aging
Laboratory: Cognitive and Brain Health Laboratory

A major focus of Dr. Kramer’s recent research is the understanding and enhancement of cognitive and neural plasticity across the lifespan. This research has included the effects of chronic and acute programs of exercise and physical activity on changes in cognition and brain structure/function from childhood through old age, including with a variety of different patient groups. Dr. Kramer’s research has also focused on designing and exploring the effects of cognitive training, both formal and informal, on cognitive and brain function. Other factors that we have studied include nutrition and non-invasive brain stimulation. In another line of research Dr. Kramer, his colleagues and students have examined distraction and multi-tasking in the wild, such as driving and street crossing in high fidelity simulators and immersive virtual reality environments.

Stacy Marsella
Specialization: Human Behavior Modeling
Laboratory: CESAR Lab

Professor Marsella’s multidisciplinary research is grounded in the computational modeling of human cognition, emotion and social behavior as well as the evaluation of those models. Beyond its relevance to understanding human behavior, the work has seen numerous applications, including health interventions, social skills training and planning operations. His more applied work includes frameworks for large-scale social simulations of towns and a range of techniques and tools for creating virtual humans, facsimiles of people that can engage people in face-to-face interactions.

Neal Pearlmutter
Specialization: Sentence Processing
Laboratory: Sentence Processing Laboratory 

Dr. Pearlmutter is interested in sentence comprehension and sentence generation processes, including ambiguity resolution, the use of grammatical constraints and the interaction and timing of use of constraints derived from working memory, real-world knowledge, grammatical knowledge, and frequency information. The goal is to understand both how the meanings of individual words are combined by comprehenders to create the meanings of whole sentences (sentence comprehension), and how sentences are created given a meaning that a speaker has in mind to convey (sentence generation). Dr. Pearlmutter uses various methodologies including word-by-word reading, eyetracking, functional neuroimaging (event-related potential recording and event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging), computational modeling, and examination of large text corpora. Some of his current research examines whether comprehenders can consider multiple possible interpretations of a sentence simultaneously, how individual differences in working memory impact sentence understanding, the relationship between the different meanings of a word and its different grammatical possibilities, and the degree to which the intended meaning of different phrases determines the nature of sentence planning processes.

Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli
Specialization: Translational Neuroscience
Laboratory: PEN Lab

Professor Whitfield-Gabrieli’s primary mission is to understand the brain basis of psychiatric disorders and to promote translation of this knowledge into clinical practice.  Towards this end, she employs multimodal neuroimaging techniques to investigate the pathophysiology of psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and ADHD.  Her ultimate mission is to discover biomarkers for improved diagnosis, early detection (potentiating early intervention and possibly prevention), prediction of therapeutic response (targeted towards precision medicine) as well as developing novel therapeutic techniques (e.g., real-time fMRI feedback) with the hope of improving (or augmenting) currently available treatments.  The secondary mission of her research is to develop innovative neuroimaging analysis tools to share with clinicians and the neuroimaging community at large.