Collaborative Research: Differing Interpretations of Young Children's Geometric Skills

Project: Research project

Project Details


Research over the past two decades has revealed that a wide variety of animal species, including fish, birds, non-human mammals and humans, share a powerful sensitivity to the geometric properties of enclosing spaces (e.g., the relative length of walls defining enclosures). They use such information to reestablish spatial orientation after being disoriented (Cheng, 1986; Hermer & Spelke, 1996; for a review, see Cheng & Newcombe, in press). Further, it has been suggested that such geometric processing constitutes a specialized cognitive module that is normally impenetrable to nongeometric information (Cheng, 1986; Hermer & Spelke, 1996), with combination of information only made possible by use of language (Spelke & Hermer, 1996). These findings on geometric processing and its purported modularity have been exciting to a wide audience of researchers focused on cognitive architecture, comparative cognition, cognitive development, and the role of language in behavior. They are relevant to the hotly-debated issues concerning the extent to which knowledge is innate or environmentally plastic. Parents, educators and policy makers have a stake in accurate understanding of the nature of development.

Vital issues concerning these proposals remain unsettled, however. This research will address controversy in two areas. First, the nature of geometric sensitivity is not yet clear. We will address two questions: how geometric coding is related to representations of viewer position, and whether information about the lengths of the sides of a space is retained in an absolute way (as some mental equivalent of a measured distance) or in a relative fashion (as some lengths being simply longer or shorter than others). Second, there is doubt about the claim that geometric information is encapsulated and the associated idea that landmarks are not integrated with geometric information unless language is used to link cognitive modules. An alternative account holds that geometric and featural information are normally integrated in a way that depends on the relative usefulness of various kinds of information in particular situations. This research project will contrast these accounts.

Effective start/end date8/15/047/31/08


  • National Science Foundation: $149,900.00


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