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Events & Programs

Please click HERE for a complete listing of all events this term.

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Wednesday, February 3               
PAIS 290, 4 pm

LECTURE:                                             Delusion and Spiritual Experience: a Case Study and Consequences

Kenneth (Bill) Fulford
University of Warwick
Center for Neuroethics, University of Oxford

The widely held belief that the diagnosis of mental disorder is a matter exclusively for value-free science has been much reinforced by recent dramatic advances in the neurosciences. In this lecture, I will use a detailed case study of delusion and spiritual experience to indicate to the contrary that values come into the diagnosis of mental disorders directly through the language of the diagnostic criteria adopted in such scientifically–grounded classifications as the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual).  Various competing interpretations of the importance of values in psychiatric diagnosis will be considered. Interpreted through the lens of the Oxford tradition of linguistic-analytic philosophy, however, diagnostic values in psychiatry are seen to reflect the complex and often conflicting values of real people.  This latter interpretation has the direct consequence that there is a need for processes of assessment in psychiatry that are equally values-based as evidence-based. A failure to recognise this in the past has resulted in some of the worst abusive misuses of psychiatric diagnostic concepts. In the final part of the presentation I will outline recent developments in values-based practice in mental health including some of its applications to diagnostic assessment, and in other areas of health care (such as surgery).

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Tuesday, February 9
PAIS 290, 4 pm
LECTURE:                                             Empathy through/with/for Music          

Jenefer Robinson
Department of Philosophy
University of Cincinnati

Broadly speaking, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Iacoboni). More narrowly, an emotion is usually deemed empathic only when “the agent is aware that it is caused by the perceived, imagined, or inferred plight of another, or it expresses concern for the welfare of another” (Maibom). In the broad sense, the tender reciprocal relationship that develops between mother and infant when the mother sings to the baby and the baby responds is a species of empathy through music. In the narrower sense listeners may empathize with the music itself when they are affected by music via emotional contagion – a kind of low-level empathy – to adopt the musical gestures they experience and thereby share the emotion expressed by the music. If, in addition, it’s possible for music to express the emotions of a persona – the performer, the composer or simply a “character” in the music – then listeners can engage in high-level empathy for the persona, imagining feeling the emotions of the persona that are expressed in the music and coming to share them.

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Thursday, February 11 -  Friday, February 12       
Cox Hall Ballroom
Emory Conference Center Hotel, Great Hearth




Thursday, February 11, 2015


Chair:  Laura Namy (Psychology, CMBC, Emory University)

Joseph LeDoux
Department of Neuroscience
New York University

Coming to Terms with Fear” 

Research on Pavlovian fear conditioning has been very successful in revealing what has come to be called the “fear system” of the brain.  The field has now matured to the point where a sharper conceptualization of what is being studied could be very useful as we go forward. Terms like “fear conditioning” and “fear system” blur the distinction between processes that give rise to conscious feelings of fear and non-conscious processes that control defense responses elicited by threats. These processes interact but are not the same. This is an important distinction because symptoms based on conscious and non-conscious processes may be vulnerable to different predisposing factors and may also be treatable with different approaches in people who suffer from uncontrolled fear or anxiety. Using terms that respect the distinction will help focus future animal research on brain circuits that detect and respond to threats, and should also help clarify the implications of this work for understanding how normal and pathological feelings of fear come about in the human brain.

Stephan Hamman
Department of Psychology
Emory University

Neuroscience Perspectives on Psychological Theories of Emotion

Neuroimaging and other neuroscience approaches have generated a wealth of new findings about the brain correlates of emotion, for example, changes in brain activity patterns corresponding to variations in emotion intensity and type. Such evidence is playing an increasingly important role in debates about the nature and organization of emotion, for example, whether emotions are best represented by a discrete set of emotions such as fear and anger, and the extent to which dedicated, evolutionarily-shaped neural circuits exist for emotion. The talk will focus on exploring new perspectives that neuroimaging has provided on the brain basis of human emotion and psychological emotion theories. Emotion views which propose that individual emotions or affective dimensions map directly onto the function of specific brain regions have long been influential in neuroscience and psychology, yet there is mounting neuroscience evidence that such one-to-one correspondences between structure and function are illusory and that emotions arise from the complex interactions of multiple brain regions. Neuroimaging findings provide clues about how these distributed brain representations create different emotions and how emotion states can be decoded from patterns of brain activity. Key implications of these findings for existing psychological theories of emotion will be discussed, as well as the need to corroborate correlational neuroimaging findings with other approaches that experimentally manipulate brain activity and structure.

Paul Thagard
Department of Philosophy
Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience
University of Waterloo

Brain Mechanisms Explain Emotion” 

Is love a judgment, a body process, or a cultural interpretation?  Emotion theorists dispute whether emotions are cognitive appraisals, responses to physiological changes, or social constructions.   That emotions are all of these can be grasped by identifying brain mechanisms for emotions, including representation by groups of spiking neurons, binding of representations into semantic pointers, and competition among semantic pointers.   Semantic pointers are patterns of firing in groups of neurons that function like symbols while incorporating sensory and motor information that can be recovered.   Emotions are semantic pointers that bind representations of situations, physiology, and appraisal into unified packages that can guide behavior if they outcompete other semantic pointers.   Social and linguistic information is incorporated into cognitive appraisal.   This view of emotions is supported by computer simulations (using Chris Eliasmith’s Semantic Pointer Architecture) that model dynamic appraisal, embodiment,  interaction of physiological input and appraisal, and reasoning about emotions.  Unlike traditional theories, the semantic pointer theory of emotion can also explain why people have conscious experiences such as happiness and sadness.


Chair:  Melissa Williams (Goizueta School of Business, Emory University)

Jocelyne Bachevalier
Department of Psychology
Yerkes National Primate Research Center
Emory University

Brain Mechanisms in Emotion Regulation

Regulation of emotion is important for adaptive social functioning and mental well-being.  It involves the ability to inhibit or modulate primary emotions to produce contextually appropriate emotions and behaviors. The neural networks underlying this regulatory process will be reviewed and discussed.  Particularly, interactions between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex are becoming of major interest in understanding the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and depression.

Andrea Scarantino
Department of Philosophy
Neuroscience Institute
Georgia State University

A New Perspective on Basic Emotions:  No Selection without Regulation
The most influential recent challenge to the scientific viability of Basic Emotion Theory (BET) comes from psychological constructionists, who have argued that, contrary to BET’s claims, the empirical data do not support the existence of coordinated packages of biological markers – either in the body or in the brain – associated with candidate basic emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, disgust, etc The take home message of my talk is that the empirical data undermine what I call Traditional BET, but are not fatal to BET as a research program. I will show how a New BET can be formulated so as to answer the constructionist critique. The fundamental novelty is that regulation plays a key role in explaining how basic emotions evolved as solutions to fundamental life tasks, because it allows for the sort of flexible responding shown by the empirical data on variability.


Chair:  Lynne Nygaard (Psychology, CMBC, Emory University)

Robyn Fivush
Department of Psychology
Emory University

Gender and Emotion in Autobiographical Reminiscing

In this presentation, I describe a feminist sociocultural model of autobiographical memory that provides a framework for understanding how gender and emotion are mutually constructed within everyday reminiscing about the personal past. Autobiographical narratives both reflect and create representations of what happened and what it means for the individual in terms of understanding self, others, and relationships.  In particular, emotional expression within autobiographical narratives carries information about what Bruner has called the “internal landscape of consciousness,” focusing on subjective evaluative meaning.  It is therefore especially interesting that females express more emotion in their autobiographical reminiscing than do males and do so across a wide developmental age span and a variety of contexts. Here, I focus on studies of family reminiscing that demonstrate how parents and children discuss emotions within narratives about their shared past and within intergenerational narratives about the parents’ past in ways that re-create gendered identities across the generations.

Melvin Konner
Department of Anthropology
Emory University

“Gender Differences in Emotion, Motivation, and Behavior: Can Culture Explain Them All?”

Konner will argue, as he did at length in Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy (Norton, 2015), that a current consensus of neural and neuroendocrine research, in the context of neodarwinian sexual selection and phylogenetic, cross-cultural, historical, and psychological perspectives, now suggests that sex differences in some behaviors (notably violence and driven sexuality) and their underlying emotions and motivations require a partly biological explanation. There are no sex differences in general intelligence, or in many measures of cognitive function, skill, motivation, or emotion. Other measures of emotion (for example, the intensity of publicly expressed grief) are strongly influenced by cultural models and show marked cross-cultural variation in the character and degree of gender differences. But the current scientific consensus is that culture (including upbringing, education, models, and media) cannot explain all gender differences in behavior, emotion, and motivation, although it can explain most such differences. Thoughtful people are rightly concerned about the philosophical and political implications of this consensus. Konner will argue that biological facts and perspectives can now be deployed in favor of gender equality rather than against it.


Friday, February 12, 2015


Chair:  Timothy Jackson (Candler School of Theology, Emory University)

Frans de Waal
Department of Psychology
Living Links Center
Yerkes National Primate Research Center
Emory University

“Animal Emotions and Empathy”

Emotions suffuse much of the language employed by students of animal behavior --from "social bonding" to "alarm calls" -- yet are often avoided as explicit topic in scientific discourse. Given the increasing interest of human psychology in the emotions, and the neuroscience on animal emotions such as fear and attachment, the taboo that has hampered animal research in this area is outdated. We need to recall the history of our field in which emotions and instincts were mentioned in the same breath and in which neither psychologists nor biologists felt that animal emotions were off limits. The main point is to separate emotions from feelings, which are subjective experiences that accompany the emotions. Whereas science has no access to animal feelings, animal emotions are as observable and measurable as human emotions. They are mental and bodily states that potentiate behavior appropriate to both social and nonsocial situations. The expression of emotions in face and body language is well known, the study of which began with Darwin. I will discuss early ideas about animal emotions and draw upon research on empathy and the perception of emotions in primates to make the point that the study of animal emotions is a necessary complement to the study of behavior. Emotions are best viewed as the initiators and organizers of adaptive responses to environmental stimuli.

Jim Rilling
Department of Anthropology
Program in Neuroscience
Emory University

”The Neural Correlates of Human Social Emotions in the Context of Reciprocal Altruism“

In a now classic 1971 paper, Robert Trivers proposed that many human social emotions evolved in response to the need to negotiate relationships based on reciprocal altruism, which were likely crucial to the survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In the same paper, he argued that the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game could serve as a model for relationships based on reciprocal altruism. Over the past 15 years, our lab has utilized the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game paradigm in combination with fMRI to investigate the neural bases of human social emotions. We have described 1) neural responses to both reciprocated and unreciprocated cooperation, 2) sex differences in these responses, 3) modulation of these responses by psychopathic personality, 4) modulation of these responses by the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin, and 5) modulation of these responses by oxytocin receptor genotypes. In this talk, I will summarize and synthesize the above research, while also integrating findings from other research groups relevant to understanding the neural bases of human social emotions.

Paul Root Wolpe
Emory Center for Ethics
Department of Medicine, Emory School of Medicine
Sociology, Emory University

The Ethics Chicken and Egg: Emotions and Intellect in Determining Moral Action”

Scholarship taking place in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience have begun to illuminate the complex relationship between the emotional and intellectual contributions to our moral thought and behavior.  However, the assumptions often made in the West – that ethical decision-making should be primarily an intellectual exercise, and that emotional contributions are suspect at best and corrupting at worst should be questioned.  The Dalai Lama, for example, has proffered a system he calls “secular ethics” founded on an emotional platform that he believes can be cultivated for better ethical decisions.  Other faiths, such as Judaism, see a rational ethical method as more reliable.  We need to understand the nuances of both means of moral decision making to be able to untangle their mutual, important contribution to ethical expression.



Chair:  Dietrich Stout (Anthropology, Emory University)

Philippe Rochat
Department of Psychology
Emory University

Origins of Uncanny Self-Conscious Emotions

Self-consciousness and self-conscious emotions are hallmark characteristics of human psychology, a gift and curse from Nature. It is a gift because it allows us to be incomparably creative. It is a curse because it determines uncanny conscious experiences such as the inescapable awareness of impending self-disappearance (death).  I will argue that the fear of separation and the basic affiliation need we share with other animals is for us combined with unmatched preoccupations with reputation, self-preoccupation, and the constant gauging of the self through the evaluative eyes of others. This combination leads to an uncanny capacity for self-delusions, misunderstandings, lies, and other duplicities that are also the trademark of human self-conscious psychology.   I illustrate the emergence of such psychology by presenting some empirical observations collected in recent years on the uncanny mirror self-experience of young children across cultures, social conformity and the emerging sense of sharing as well as material ownership by young children in the US and around the world.   I will conclude with the speculation that universally, as children become self-conscious (in the sense proposed here), they develop the potential for guilt and lies, both signs of emerging moral awareness and the source of new uncanny self-conscious emotions like pride, shame, and envy, all by-products of human self-conscious psychology.

Laura Otis
Department of English
Emory University

The Bodily and Cultural Roots of Metaphors for Obnoxious Emotions

Some human emotions are so unloved that few people admit to feeling them. In Western cultures, these include self-pity, resentment, spite, hate, envy, and grudge-bearing. Metaphors for these “banned” emotions reveal their grounding in bodily sensations and postures. At the same time, religious and political beliefs have shaped the ways that these unsavory emotions are represented. To offer insight into the merging forces of culture and physiology, this presentation examines metaphors for “banned” emotions in a tradition that links religious allegories, such as The Inferno and Pilgrim’s Progress, with self-help books such as Emotional Intelligence and Who Moved My Cheese? The families of metaphors used to represent unloved emotions play roles in classic literary works like Great Expectations and Notes from the Underground, but they can also be seen in scientific studies of emotions and in popular films like Bridesmaids. The representation of emotions is a political issue, since not everyone agrees about which emotions should be expressed and how. Emotions that seem obnoxious to one person may be experienced by another as essential to his or her sense of self.


Chair:  Richard Patterson (Philosophy, Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Emory University)

Don Saliers
Candler School of Theology
Emory University

Processing Emotions Musically

This paper begins by setting out several important theories of how music is claimed to “express” human emotions.  An inevitable comparison follows with how human emotions are linguistically constituted and expressed.   This, in turn, highlights the complexity of musical “syntax” and “grammar” as well as the limits of language—or at least the limits of “cognitive” theories of emotion. Contrasting examples of music will be drawn from Bach, Copeland and Art Tatum’s jazz piano.  I will conclude with some threshold questions about how neuropsychology may contribute to our understanding of relations between music and human emotion.

Jim Grimsley
Department of Creative Writing
Emory University

Emotion as Danger: Trigger Warnings and Dangerous Prose

The phenomenon of trigger warnings, intended to help guide students in dealing with the emotions raised by difficult or provocative works of art, indicates the ability of artistic works to raise powerful and even cathartic feelings in members of the audience. The author will discuss the use and abuse of these warnings in relation to works of fiction.

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Thursday, February 18                  
4 pm, PAIS 290

LECTURE:                                             Cognitive Aesthetics:  Beauty, the Brain, and Virginia Woolf

Patrick Colm Hogan
Department of English
University of Connecticut

In this talk, drawn from his book, Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Hogan outlines an account of aesthetic response that synthesizes the insights of cognitive neuroscience with those implicit in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway.  Hogan begins by briefly outlining an explanation of beauty based on human information processing (specifically, pattern isolation and prototype approximation). He goes on to consider complications. These complications include the simple, but highly consequential matter of differentiating judgments of beauty from aesthetic response. They also include the relative neglect of literature in neurologically-based discussions of beauty, which tend to focus on music or visual art. There is in addition the potentially more difficult issue of the relative neglect of emotion, beyond the reward system. Related to this last point, there is the very limited treatment of the sublime in empirical research and associated theoretical reflection. After considering these issues broadly, Hogan turns to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, examining its treatment of beauty and sublimity. The aim of this section is not merely to illuminate Woolf’s novel by reference to neuroscientific research. It is equally, perhaps more fully, to expand our neuroscientifically grounded account of aesthetic response by drawing on Woolf’s novel.

Sponsored by the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence’s University Course Initiative, with support from the CMBC.

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Thursday, February 25                  
4 pm, PAIS 290

LECTURE:                                             Homo Naledi and the Evolution of Human Behavior

John Hawks
Department of Anthropology
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Hominin remains were discovered in October, 2013 within the Rising Star cave system, inside the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, South Africa. Lee Berger and the University of the Witwatersrand organized excavations with a skilled team of archaeologists and support of local cavers, which have to date uncovered 1550 hominin skeletal specimens. The hominin remains represent a minimum of 15 individuals of a previously undiscovered hominin species, which we have named Homo naledi. Aside from its subtantially smaller brain, H. naledi is cranially similar to early Homo species such as Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis and early Homo erectus, but its postcranial anatomy presents a mosaic that has never before been observed, including very humanlike feet and lower legs, a primitive australopith-like pelvis and proximal femur, primitive ribcage and shoulder configuration, generally humanlike wrists and hand proportions, combined with very curved fingers and a powerful thumb. The geological age of the fossils is not yet known. The Dinaledi Chamber contains no macrofauna other than the hominin remains, and geological study of the cave system rules out most hypotheses for the deposition of the hominin bone, including predator or scavenger accumulation, catastrophic death, and flood accumulation. Our preferred hypothesis for the hominin assemblage is deliberate deposition by H. naledi itself. This presentation will review Homo naledi from the initial discovery of the fossils to their interpretation and their relevance to understanding the evolution of human behavior.

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Tuesday, March 1                           
4 pm, White Hall 206

LECTURE:                                             The Evolutionary Logic of Self-Deception – and Its Implications for Everyday Life

Robert Trivers
Department of Anthropology
Rutgers University

Self-deception evolved in the service of deceit, the better to hide it from others. This includes social psychology and immunology of self-deception as well as its interaction with music and humor. Many human disasters--from airplane crashes to stupid and misguided wars--are partly or largely the result of self-deception. The Internet has greatly expanded opportunities for deception and theft, while phone cameras have given the lie to police shootings of innocent, unarmed people. We can fight our own self-deception, but it is not easy.

Sponsored by the Department of Anthropology with support from the Departments of Psychology, Biology, and the CMBC.                                    

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Tuesday, March 15                         
4:00 pm, PAIS 290

LECTURE:                                             Ockham’s Razor ─ When is the Simpler Theory Better?

Elliott Sober
Department of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin

Many scientists believe that the search for simple theories is not optional; rather, it is a requirement of the scientific enterprise.  When theories get too complex, scientists reach for Ockham’s razor, the principle of parsimony, to do the trimming.  This principle says that a theory that postulates fewer entities, processes, or causes is better than a theory that postulates more, so long as the simpler theory is compatible with what we observe.  Ockham’s razor presents a puzzle.  It is obvious that simple theories may be beautiful and easy to remember and understand.  The hard problem is to explain why the fact that one theory is simpler than another tells you anything about the way the world is.  In my lecture, I’ll describe two solutions.

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Tuesday, March 22                         
4 pm, PAIS 290

LECTURE:                                             The Evolution and Neurobiology of Musical Beat Processing

Aniruddh D. Patel
Department of Psychology
Tufts University

Music is ancient and universal in human cultures.  In The Descent of Man, Darwin theorized that musical rhythmic processing tapped into ancient and widespread aspects of animal brain function.  While appealing, this idea is being challenged by modern cross-species and neurobiological research.  In this talk I will describe research supporting the hypothesis that musical beat processing has its origin in another rare biological trait shared by humans and just a few other groups of animals (none of which are primates), namely complex vocal learning.  I will also suggest that once the capacity for beat processing arose in our species, it was refined and enhanced by mechanisms of gene-culture coevolution due to the impact of synchronization to a beat on social bonds in early human groups.

Sponsored by the CMBC with support from the Hightower Fund, and the Departments of Psychology and Anthropology.

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Thursday, March 24                       
4 pm, PAIS 464

INFO SESSION:                                  The Certificate in Mind, Brain, and Culture         
Lynne Nygaard
Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture
Emory University

The Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture has a Certificate Program for students interested in under-standing issues relating to mind, brain, culture and their intersections, from multiple disciplinary perspectives. We invite interested students to join us for an information session about the certificate program.

Refreshments will be provided. 

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Thursday, April 7                         
4:00 PM, PAIS 290


LECTURE:                                             The Burial Ground:  A Bridge between Language and Culture

Allison Burkette
Department of Modern Languages
University of Mississippi

This paper will explore the cultural and historical forces that created variation in terms for 'cemetery', including links between language and material culture, using terms found within two Linguistic Atlas Project datasets to demonstrate how colonial influence, cultural changes, and physical locations contribute to language variation. This project has found that the religious and social climates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries linger in the vocabularies of speakers from the 1930s, as northern and southern colonial trends were still influencing regional language use several hundred years later.  Furthermore, for the Linguistic Atlas of New England data, we find that the physical proximity to historic cemeteries has an effect on speakers' use of specific 'cemetery' vocabulary items.

LECTURE:                                             Computer Simulation of the Linguistic Atlas:  New Suggestions about the Process of Language Change

William A. Kretzschmar, Jr.
Department of English
University of Georgia

The crucial issue for space and time in language and cultural study is modeling The crucial issue for space and time in language and cultural study is modeling diffusion, how characteristics spread spatially over time. The process of diffusion certainly occurs as a result of cultural interaction--to use language as prime example, massive numbers of people talking (and more recently writing) to each other. The new science of "complex systems" shows that order emerges from such systems by means of self-organization: particular variants come to be more or less frequent among different groups of people or types of discourse (the same nonlinear curve has a different order of variants at every scale of analysis), and variant frequency comes to mark identity of the different regional and social groups. Computer simulation is the only practical way to model linguistic diffusion. We have successfully simulated diffusion with a cellular automaton, which uses update rules with respect to the status of its neighboring locations to determine the status (whether a linguistic feature is used or not) at a given location. After substantial experience with the computer simulation, we have observed a number of characteristics that are highly suggestive for how the complex system of speech may operate in actual human populations of speakers, and in this paper I will report on six key findings. Our use of a simple cellular automaton in a successful simulation suggests how we might better understand the survey and other data we have already collected, and also suggests how we might do a better job of collecting additional empirical data about language in future.

Sponsored by the Program in Linguistics with support from the CMBC.

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Friday, April 8 - Saturday, April 9
Grace Crum Rollins and Claudia Nance Rollins Buildings
Rollins School of Public Health

The conference will feature a keynote by Dr. Ellen Samuels, whose recent book, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race, charts a course through literary analysis, the history of law and public policy, scientific tracts, and more to shed light on our modern perceptions of the solidity of social categories like race, gender, and disability. Attendees will also have the chance to register for guided seminars with seminal thinkers on questions of identity and representation, including Dr. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Dr. Sander Gilman, Dr. Sherman James, Dr. Hannah Cooper, Dr. Dabney Evans, Dr. Abigail Sewell, Dr. Deboleena Roy, and more. The conference will culminate in a performance by Full Radius Dance, an Atlanta-based physically integrated professional dance company.  More information is available at https://criticaljunctureconference.wordpress.com/

Sponsored by the Program in Science & Society; the Departments of Film, Theater, Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, History, French & Italian, English, Behavioral Science and Health Education, Neuroscience & Behavioral Biology; by the Office of the Provost, Laney Graduate School's New Thinkers New Leaders Fund, the Hightower Fund, the Graduate Student Council, Rollins School of Public Health, Visual Scholarship Initiative, Global & Postcolonial Studies, the Disability Studies Initiative, the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture, the Psychoanalytic Studies Program, the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, and the James Weldon Johnson Institute.

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From Tools and Gestures to the Language-Ready Brain
Emory University, Carlos Museum Reception Hall
April 12, 9:00-1:00

FREE Registration Required – http://tinyurl.com/april12language
Register today and submit a question for the Panel!

9:00 am                Erin Hecht (Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, Georgia State University)

From Action Perception to Tool Making: Adaptations to Fronto-Parietal Circuits in Human Brain Evolution

ABSTRACT:  Chimpanzee stone tool use has remained essentially unchanged for at least 4300 years. In that time, humans have gone from the Bronze Age to Pluto. How have we so drastically outpaced our closest living relatives? What is it about the human brain that makes us faster and more prolific social learners, better at innovating upon socially learned actions, and capable of producing rapidly-evolving cumulative culture with products like complex technology and language? This talk will discuss adaptations to the neural circuitry for observing and reproducing others’ hand-object actions, and how the elaboration of this basic functionality may have supported the emergence of more complex capacities. Comparative neuroimaging studies have uncovered some properties of frontoparietal circuits that are likely common to all primates, some shared by humans and chimpanzees, and some unique to our species. Experimental archaeology research provides a window on human evolution after we diverged from our primate relatives, including how individual brains are forced to change in order to acquire the skills that were important selective pressures in our evolutionary history, like symbolic communication and toolmaking. Together, these lines of research suggest an evolutionary trend toward elaboration in dorsal-stream, “vision-for-action” circuitry. These changes seem tuned to support increased integration of hierarchical conceptualizations of action goals with concrete kinematic, proprioceptive, and spatio-temporal details – a function which would be increasingly important during the evolution of behaviors where complex sequences of fine motor actions are acquired via social transmission, as occurs in language, gesture, and tool use.

BIO: Much of my work has focused on comparative neuroimaging of frontoparietal circuits. This has included structural imaging of connections between brain regions (DTI) and functional imaging of how these regions respond during action and perception (FDG-PET). I have been comparing the brains of modern macaques, chimpanzees, and humans in order to determine how behavioral differences between these species may be related to differences in brain structure and function, and in order to extrapolate the evolutionary trajectories of our extinct primate ancestors. In particular, I am interested in species differences in frontoparietal circuits which could relate to the evolution of action understanding, social learning, and tool use, all of which are proposed to have been related to the evolution of language.


9:45 am                Atsushi Iriki (Riken Brain Research Institute, Wakō, Japan)

How Human Intelligence May Have Evolved in the Primate Brain

ABSTRACT:  Hominin evolution has involved a continuous process of addition of new kinds of cognitive capacity, including those relating to manufacture and use of tools and to the establishment of linguistic faculties. The dramatic expansion of the brain that accompanied additions of new functional areas would have supported such continuous evolution. Extended brain functions would have driven rapid and drastic changes in the hominin ecological niche, which in turn demanded further brain resources to adapt to it. In this way, humans have constructed a novel niche in each of the ecological, cognitive and neural domains, whose interactions accelerated their individual evolution through a process of triadic niche construction. Human higher cognitive activity can therefore be viewed holistically as one component in a terrestrial ecosystem. The primate brain’s functional characteristics seem to play a key role in this triadic interaction. And I will further advance a speculative argument about the origins of its neurobiological mechanisms, as an extension (with wider scope) of the evolutionary principles of adaptive function in the animal nervous system. The brain mechanisms that subserve tool use may bridge the gap between gesture and language — the site of such integration seems to be the parietal and extending opercular cortices.

BIO:  Atsushi Iriki received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Tokyo Medical and Dental University in 1986. He held research associate positions at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University and then at The Rockefeller University (USA). He joined the faculty of Toho University Medical School as an assistant professor and then as an associate professor in Physiology (1991-1999). In 1999, he returned to Tokyo Medical and Dental University as a full professor and chairman of Cognitive Neurobiology. Atsushi IRIKI is now a Head of Laboratory for Symbolic Cognitive Development at RIKEN Brain Science Institute since 2004. He is currently a visiting professor of Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), an adjunct professor of Keio University, a research professor of Kyoto University, and the president and CEO of RIKÆNALYSIS Corporation (RIKEN Venture, Tokyo).


10:30 am              Coffee Break


10:50 am              Virginia Volterra (Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, Rome)

Developmental Evidence on Continuity from Action to Gesture, to Sign and Word

ABSTRACT:All humans regardless of their hearing status or the modality of the linguistic input to which they are exposed make use of gestures to communicate from infancy. Various studies conducted in our lab on the emergence of the gestures in infancy have highlighted the existence of a close link between early action schemes and the appearance of linguistic communication: meanings that infants initially ‘practice’ with/without object manipulation are likely to enter their communicative repertoires as representational gestures and/or words. Furthermore, despite cultural and linguistic differences in frequency of use, representational techniques for depicting information about objects and events have been shown to share a common cognitive basis recruited by both gestural systems and language. For example the distinction between representing an object and representing how you handle or use an object is made across gesture and sign, languages and cultures. My contribution will offer a review of major works conducted in our laboratory on the early stages of development exploring the emergence of the gesture-language system in infancy and its evolution toward adulthood. Studies include actions and gestures produced by hearing children as well as gestures and signs produced by deaf children exposed to a sign language input. Considering recent developmental data I will describe and define the gradual transition from action to gesture to speech with occurs in infancy and is comparable to human evolutionary history, according to which the medium of language gradually shifted from a manual-visual system to a vocal-acoustic one.

BIO:  Since the beginning of my career at the Institute of Psychology of Italy’s National Research Council (now Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies), my research has focused on the role of gesture in language acquisition and development. During our early years (from 1975 to 1993) our research was primarily focused on very early stages of language acquisition (i.e. considering children between 9 and 18 months). This age-range characterized most of our studies on the role of gestures in language development, conducted in strong collaboration with Elizabeth Bates and centered on the continuity from action to gesture to word. During a second phase (from 1994 to 2007) we moved on to consider older age groups, analyzing the interplay of gestures and words while focusing on action gestures and their link with co-speech gestures in naming or narratives. More recently (from 2007 up until to today) we have conducted extensive research on children exposed to sign language (SL), extending methods used in SL studies to the analysis of gestures produced by hearing children and exploring the continuity from action to gesture, to sign.


11:35 am              Richard Byrne (University of St. Andrews, Scotland)

Bridging the Gap: Gestural Communication of the Great Apes

ABSTRACT:  The evolution of human language presents the greatest challenge for cognitive biology. Language is accepted as our most critical cognitive ability; and it is just too complex to have evolved in a single step, so precursors shared with non-human primates are to be expected. Researchers have largely focused on primate vocalizations, with most work carried out on monkeys: intense effort over the last 50 years has revealed many fascinating and subtle uses of monkey calls, but what is almost entirely missing is any evidence that a calling monkey's goal is to influence a particular audience. In contrast, human language is deeply intentional, as Paul Grice first pointed out: language is used with intent to influence the behaviour and minds of others. Against this background, the discovery that great ape gestures are used intentionally is exciting: there is now abundant evidence that apes give gestures in order to produce specific effects in particular audiences. Ape gestures ‘bridge the gap’ between animal signals and human language. I will explain some of the findings from recent studies of gesture in chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans, both in captivity and under natural conditions in the field. Particular emphasis will be given to what gestures mean; whether series of gestures have syntactic structure, in which the meaning depends on the organization; and how ape repertoires of gesture develop: are they acquired culturally by imitation, or what? A picture is emerging of a communication system with puzzling properties, whose eventual decipherment will give a solid basis for understanding how the ‘great leap’ of acquiring language took place.

BIO:  Richard Byrne studies the evolution of cognitive and social behaviour, particularly the origins of distinctively human characteristics. Current projects focus on the gestural communication of the great apes, and on the social cognition of the African elephant. Previous work has included tactical deception in primates and its relationship to brain size and intelligence, welfare-related studies of cognition in the domestic pig, and the analysis of social learning and imitation. Professor Byrne was awarded the British Psychology Society Book Award 1997 for his O.U.P. monograph The Thinking Ape.


12:20 pm              Panel Discussion


Funding provided by the ABLE Project (Action, Brain, Language and Evolution);
Emory Conference Center Subvention Fund; Center for Mind, Brain and Culture;
and Institute for Quantitative Theory and Methods

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