Dr. Elizabeth Spelke: Core Concepts


It was amazing to get to speak with Dr. Elizabeth Spelke! She introduces herself modestly, but it is worth noting that she is a researcher with a laundry list of fabulous honors and awards and is currently the Marshall L. Berkman endowed chair at Harvard University.

Here is Dr. Spelke:

Indeed, she does study babies, but her work is far reaching to the core of human cognitive capacity.

Dr. Spelke is a researcher who has clearly been influential in the history of Psychology with her early ground-breaking work on intermodal perception in infants, her extensive efforts to understand the core cognitive abilities of infants, and her research on spatial awareness,  numeracy, and many other critical cognitive concepts.  She has not only made tremendous contributions as a researcher, but she also has worked directly with some of the most renowned figures of Psychology in the development of her career.

As an undergraduate she researched with Jerry Kagan (also a fantastic and influential figure in Psychology — and I hope you check out my conversation with him)! Her graduate work was with Eleanor Gibson ( a brilliant researcher that is perhaps best known by her work on the Visual Cliff, and is one of the tremendous minds in the field of Perception); along with Ulrich Neisser (another incredible person in Psychology, earning him the moniker “Father of Cognitive Psychology”); and others in the department at Cornell University at that time (e.g., Eleanor Gibson’s husband, J.J. Gibson was certainly no slouch as a contributor to Perception, himself).

One might further note Dr. Spelke’s early career  as a new faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. As she began her career, she described support and mentorship from her intellectual engagement with many brilliant colleagues: Rochel Gelman, Randy Gallistel, Lila Gleitman, Henry Gleitman, David Premack, and others.

All of this experience and the stories she has, pertain  directly to innovative work in cognitive development and illuminate many of the people that shaped the modern field of Psychology. It was thrilling to speak with her and learn about the evolution of key ideas and theories from the 1970’s to recent times as had pertained to her life and interactions.

So were there experiences in her early life that shaped her intellectual dispositions?

Here Dr. Spelke describes some of her earliest memories, traveling with her family as a four-year old. Her father was a documentary filmmaker who took young Liz and her mother on location to remote parts of the world (e.g., across  the America’s, Asia, etc). Here she describes some  of her memories of those times. These memories are so much fun — with a glimpse of this precocious young child — and there is even a monkey!

I asked about how she got interested in Psychology and she attributed her spark for the topic to multiple sources. Like many that I’ve spoken with, Psychology wasn’t her first choice. Here she describes how Psychology became her focus during her undergraduate education at Radcliffe, after a sojourn in a very different major:

I pity the Russia scholars who lost out on the putative contributions from Dr. Spelke had she stuck to her original academic plans. Go cry into your vodka and toast the glory days of Lenin. You’ll feel better in the morning.

Here’s an abrupt transition from Dr. Spelke’s early life, to more recent history.

During one of the most fruitful periods of Dr. Spelke’s career, she engaged in a 30-plus year collaboration with another excellent scholar and Psychologist, Dr. Susan Carey. They met in 1981 and since that time partnered on some highly influential papers in cognitive development. What has always struck me about this collaboration is that, while Drs. Spelke and Carey have common interests,  in many ways they also have contrasting  theoretical positions. It’s a fascinating dynamic: they are joined by common goals for understanding and discovery, but reach those goals by working through whatever intellectual barriers and conflicts borne of contrasting cognitive dispositions that they might have.

In this final audio clip, Dr. Spelke describes how she and Dr. Carey initiated their collaboration:

This success borne of effective partnership is a pattern we’ve seen many times. See my discussion of Dr. Hal Grotevant and his fantastic early partnership with Dr. Catherine Cooper and subsequent fantastic partnership with Dr. Ruth McRoy; or the discussion of Dr. Dan Gilbert who has been a long-time research partner with Dr. Tim Wilson.  Research is not and should not be a solitary pursuit. One must be willing to wrestle with ideas, data, assumptions, more data, and, of course, data. It is a slow process, a meticulous process, and an exciting process that requires intellectual support from colleagues, peer review, and so many other stages of collaborative efforts.

Elizabeth Spelke is an amazing researcher, and her work is enduring because she invites both support and intellectual challenge from excellent collaborators like Dr. Carey.

Here are some of the articles from Dr. Spelke’s career that are well worth checking out:

Baillargeon, R., Spelke, E. S., & Wasserman, S. (1985). Object permanence in five-month-old infantsCognition20(3), 191-208.

Carey, S., & Spelke, E. (1994). Domain-specific knowledge and conceptual change. In L.A. Hirschfield & S.A. Gelman, Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture (pp. 169-200). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Carey, S., & Spelke, E. (1996). Science and core knowledgePhilosophy of Science63(4), 515-533.

Feigenson, L., Carey, S., & Spelke, E. (2002). Infants’ discrimination of number vs. continuous extentCognitive Psychology44(1), 33-66.

Feigenson, L., Dehaene, S., & Spelke, E. (2004). Core systems of number. Trends in Cognitive Sciences8(7), 307-314.

Kellman, P. J., & Spelke, E. S. (1983). Perception of partly occluded objects in infancy. Cognitive Psychology15(4), 483-524.

Spelke, E. S. (1990). Principles of object perceptionCognitive Science14(1), 29-56.

Spelke, E. S. (2000). Core knowledgeAmerican Psychologist55(11), 1233-1243.

Spelke, E. S., Breinlinger, K., Macomber, J., & Jacobson, K. (1992). Origins of knowledge. Psychological Review99(4), 605-632.

Spelke, E., Hirst, W., & Neisser, U. (1976). Skills of divided attentionCognition4(3), 215-230.

Spelke, E. S., & Tsivkin, S. (2001). Language and number: A bilingual training study. Cognition78(1), 45-88.

Starkey, P., Spelke, E. S., & Gelman, R. (1990). Numerical abstraction by human infantsCognition36(2), 97-127.

As ever, there’s much more to share but things are now moving quickly. I’ll try to give a little bit extra on Dr. Spelke, but am in the process of editing/preparing notes on my conversation with Dr. David  Barlow.  Toodles!

(Pictured  above is Dr. Spelke in her office at William James Hall, Harvard University).

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