Cognitive tools for uncovering useful abstractions

  • Date: Jul 18, 2022
  • Time: 05:00 PM - 06:00 PM (Local Time Germany)
  • Speaker: Judy Fan
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, UC San Diego
  • Location: Zoom
  • Host: Peter Dayan (Philipp Schwartenbeck & Noemi Elteto)
Cognitive tools for uncovering useful abstractions

In the 17th century, the Cartesian coordinate system was groundbreaking. It exposed the unity between algebra and geometry, accelerating the development of the math that took humans to the moon. It was not just another concept, but a cognitive tool that people could wield to express abstract ideas in visual form, thereby expanding their capacity to think and generate new insights about a variety of other problems. Research in my lab aims to uncover the psychological mechanisms that explain how people have come to deploy these technologies in such innovative ways to learn, share knowledge, and create new things. In the first part of this talk, I will provide an overview of our recent work investigating drawing — one of our most enduring and versatile tools. Across several empirical and computational studies, I’ll argue that drawing not only provides a window into how we perceive and understand the visual world, but also accelerates our ability to learn and communicate useful abstractions. In the second part, I will describe an emerging line of work investigating how we discover new abstractions when building physical structures, and externalize these abstractions to support planning and collaboration. I will close by discussing the broader implications of embracing such complex, naturalistic behaviors for advancing psychological theory and enhancing real-world impact, including in AI and education.

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