Dr. Jenny Saffran and a Destiny in Psychology


Dr. Jenny Saffran is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin — Madison whose research has been influential in topics including the development of language, music, and more general cognitive capacities. Here she introduces herself:

An interest in science and the processes of communication  were very much a part of Dr. Saffran’s early life. Jenny Saffran is the daughter of two professors, and her mother (Eleanor Saffran) was especially notable to Psychologists as a research neurologist with some famous case studies.  That academic influence was apparent in the childhood of Jenny, from the dinner time conversations to the decor of her bedroom.

Dr. Saffran describes some of that early influence here:

Nim Chimpsky was,  of course, one of the most famous non-humans to learn to use human sign language (or specifically ASL), along with Koko the gorilla and Kanzi. The implications of Nim Chimpsky and his cohort for the study of language are fairly momentous. Nim showed the capacity for language in non-humans. That finding was critical because it strongly suggests that there are general mechanisms for learning language, and that those mechanisms must not be specific to humans. There is much more to the story of Nim, but for the moment it is notable that here he was, hanging in the childhood bedroom of Jenny. Each day his visage would have primed her to think about the similarities/differences between humans and apes. Each day she would have been faced with a reminder  about the broad cognitive mechanisms and capacities that might exist for learning language. Eventually the development of a broader theory of language would be important for Dr. Saffran’s contributions to Psychology. Moreover, Nim’s place on her wall suggests that early interest in science.

If the poster of a communicative chimp was a subtle hint of her life ahead, a much more formal and involved introduction came while Jenny was in high school.

In the following excerpt, Dr. Saffran tells the story of her introduction to research while in high school. Through luck and babysitting, she soon found an opportunity to work with a great developmental Psychologist Dr. Deborah Kemler Nelson AND another notable scientist (albeit aspiring at this time), Dr. Amanda Woodward!

If this were  a linear path, we’d anticipate that between an early life with academic parents and direct involvement with the research of Drs. Kemler Nelson and Woodward, the life of Dr. Saffran would be set.  Clearly she was able to quickly develop the experience and her capacities to work with psychological science.   Moreover, and as has been noted in the life histories of most influential psychologists on this journey, Jenny had an excitement about the capacity to actually study and understand these things that fascinated her! So that’s it, right? Case closed: go to college, go to grad school, change the world as an influential researcher!  Even with the opportunities available, there was much more discovery to be had.

In this excerpt, Dr. Saffran describes her path to psychology and the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences of her studies at Brown University.

How much did the field of Psychology do to attract this amazing mind of Dr. Saffran? She had parents who regaled her with tales of science and who led her to…An amazing opportunity as a high school student studying babies and being introduced to the intriguing concept of a science to study the objects of her interest: music. After the age-old struggle between parents and child was the question: where should she study for college? Jenny embarked on the surprisingly rebellious choice to go an ivy league school and Brown University (and since when is studying at Brown a rebellion?). But there it was… That led to a truly reflective and exploratory period in which Jenny learned about and considered the many wonderful options available to her as a student. At the risk of over editorializing, it seems worth adding that this has always been the beauty of a great higher education. Not just learning about what you aspire to accomplish in your future professional self, but also experiencing a breadth of topics and finding out which topics are absolutely NOT the right ones for you. All are critical and available in a great education. And here, Jenny learned things she liked, things she was less excited about,  and finally was invited to work with Dr. James Morgan. Invited. Personally. Of  all the people I’ve spoken with on this journey, there was maybe the most intervention of fate and fortune urging Dr. Saffran into the study of developmental psychology. Hints of destiny seem to have been at work.

By the time she completed her undergraduate degree, Jenny had worked with multiple labs, some excellent and influential scholars, and had contributed to multiple publications! So that’s it. Straight to grad school  and the life academic? Nope.  There was music and a certain restless need for more exploration, more understanding, more experience. More stories that are currently reserved for the book of this project. Eventually the pull of Psychology drew her to enter a graduate program at the University of Rochester where she worked with Drs. Elissa Newport and Richard Aslin.  Each brought a different emphasis in Psychology and they integrated  their work in the intellect and efforts of Jenny who dove forward into psychobabble (quite literally, as she needed this for her research) and her thesis with gusto. The work produced incredible and memorable publications in Science and Psychological Sciences that brought new perspective and an emerging approach to Psychology. The idea that Dr. Saffran embraced, and was born out of the collaboration she had with Drs. Newport and Aslin, was beautifully simple and powerfully far-reaching: learning is a function of the statistical regularities that occur in nature. More frequent sounds, and more importantly the re-occurrence of those sounds as a unit, will form the basis of how perceivers will separate those sounds into words.  It’s rather critical to have deciphered this mechanism since there are no pauses, no breaks, no real indicators whatsoever in a single spoken utterance for when a single word starts and stops. So how could a baby (or adult for that matter) determine what is a word an dwha tis n ot. (See what I did there?) The answer to the amazing ability of babies is found in their cognitive capacity to essentially track and use statistical patterns in nature. Dr. Saffran and her colleagues used a kind of brute force method to show how and where this occurs — providing critical evidence to a landmark idea.

Using real and made up words, Jenny tested the capacity of adults and babies for segmenting and learning speech. Here, Dr. Saffran describes the emergence of those critical ideas and the reactions they produced:

There are some big ideas in this excerpt  and I’ll take a moment to clarify. CVs or CVCs refers to the make-up of the words as either consonant-vowel combos (CVs, such as bah or doh) or consonant-vowel-consonant combos (CVCs, such as beeb or dood). She used CVs to emphasize the capacity for discernability. These findings accompanied the emergence of connectionist models from people like Jeffrey Elman and Elizabeth Bates. Connectionism (aka PDP) is a computer model that processes information through a series of connected nodes and is explained in more detail here. There’s a lot to love in this excerpt: an admirable amount of mentoring and guidance from  Drs. Newport and Aslin, the nose-to-the-grindstone work exploring a HUGE volume of speech sounds by Dr.  Saffran, her efforts to create and test that massive corpus, the reactions from other scientists, and her emergence as a scholar seeing both the local impact and potential far-reaching implications  of this research.

Eventually, of course, her research becomes recognized for its tremendous implications as Dr. Saffran expands on the early findings to apply learning via statistical regularity to speech and music stimuli across a variety of contexts. It makes sense: we have to have a way to learn. And, the fact is, learning should be drawn from what is available in the environment. It should use the information it has and make  sense of it. A baby doesn’t come into this world with languages pre-installed in its brain like my computer’s operating system. That baby must use the information it is exposed to, learn those stimuli, and adapt to the regularities of its environment. In fact, as might have been foreshadowed by her teenage bedroom, eventually Dr. Saffran even tested this concept with monkeys, and monkey’s like humans use regularities in statistical patterns to parse the world. That simple, but powerful, idea is the heart of Dr. Saffran’s contribution to Psychology in this area.

Her research program has continued to advance and she has fantastic descriptions of so much more from  her life and lab! I can’t wait to share it with you and will do so in that much touted, eventual book!

Here are some of the wonderful publications from Dr. Jenny Saffran:

Saffran, J. R. (2001). Words in a sea of sounds: The output of infant statistical learning. Cognition81(2), 149-169.

Saffran, J. R. (2002). Constraints on statistical language learningJournal of Memory and Language47(1), 172-196.

Saffran, J. R. (2003). Statistical language learning: Mechanisms and constraintsCurrent Directions in Psychological Science12(4), 110-114.

Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infantsScience274(5294), 1926-1928.

Saffran, J. R., & Griepentrog, G. J. (2001). Absolute pitch in infant auditory learning: evidence for developmental reorganizationDevelopmental Psychology37(1), 74-85.

Saffran, J. R., Newport, E. L., & Aslin, R. N. (1996). Word segmentation: The role of distributional cuesJournal of Memory and Language35(4), 606-621.

Saffran, J. R., Newport, E. L., Aslin, R. N., Tunick, R. A., & Barrueco, S. (1997). Incidental language learning: Listening (and learning) out of the corner of your earPsychological Science8(2), 101-105.

Saffran, J. R., Johnson, E. K., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1999). Statistical learning of tone sequences by human infants and adults. Cognition70(1), 27-52.

Saffran, J. R., & Thiessen, E. D. (2003). Pattern induction by infant language learnersDevelopmental Psychology39(3), 484-494.

Saffran, J. R., & Wilson, D. P. (2003). From syllables to syntax: multilevel statistical learning by 12‐month‐old infantsInfancy4(2), 273-284.

Evans, J. L., Saffran, J. R., & Robe-Torres, K. (2009). Statistical learning in children with specific language impairmentJournal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research52(2), 321-335.

Lew-Williams, C., & Saffran, J. R. (2012). All words are not created equal: Expectations about word length guide infant statistical learningCognition122(2), 241-246.

McMullen, E., & Saffran, J. R. (2004). Music and language: A developmental comparisonMusic Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal21(3), 289-311.

Hay, J. F., Graf Estes, K., Wang, T., & Saffran, J. R. (2015). From flexibility to constraint: the contrastive use of lexical tone in early word learning. Child Development86(1), 10-22.

Romberg, A. R., & Saffran, J. R. (2013). All together now: Concurrent learning of multiple structures in an artificial language. Cognitive Science37(7), 1290-1320.

Thiessen, E. D., & Saffran, J. R. (2003). When cues collide: use of stress and statistical cues to word boundaries by 7-to 9-month-old infantsDevelopmental Psychology39(4), 706-716.

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