What does your lab study?
At the SUCCESS lab, I study the different kinds of learning available to children at different ages and in different circumstances and how the development of the different learning systems in the brain that underlying those kinds of learning affects both typical and atypical cognitive development.
In particular, I have two specific projects I’m working on right now. In one of the projects, we are looking at how well children at different ages can learn new visual symbols related to different matching tasks without any verbal instructions about what the symbols mean. We are also interested in how helpful the symbols are to the tasks once learned and how easily they generalize to new tasks and circumstances. Learning symbols for concepts (in people the “symbol” is usually a word) is thought to allow us to more easily hold things in memory and think about them. It is seen as the building block for higher level cognition. Understanding the development of non-language symbol learning ability and the role that symbols play in aiding other cognitive processes is very important for understanding the role that language plays in learning and thinking and whether and how other kinds of symbols might be used to increase higher cognitive processing when language is not possible. To this end, we also study symbol learning in a similar fashion in monkeys.
In my second current project, I am studying the role that abnormalities in perceptual learning may play in autism spectrum disorder. As we go through the world perceiving our environment, our brain is constantly learning to make adjustments to the way we process and represent the things we perceive. These minor adjustments allow us to refine our perception based on the regularities in the world around us but also flexibly adjust over time if those regularities change. This learning from simple experience makes it easier for us to discriminate things that are similar, but it also allows us to represent commonality and this can help us correctly categorize things that share perceptual similarity. These adjustments are known as perceptual learning. Recent research suggests that children with autism spectrum disorder may have atypical perceptual learning and this may cause difficulties learning categories based on perceptual similarity. My colleagues in Buffalo and I have been examining how perceptual learning affects both categorization and basic perceptual discrimination in children with autism, but I also test typically developing children at different ages at the SUCCESS lab to understand the role that perceptual learning plays in the typical development of category learning and perceptual discrimination abilities.
What do children enjoy most about the research?
All our tasks are done as simple games on the computer. Even in this temporary era of social distancing, we just play the same games over Zoom. Children love to play computer games.
What are things families might do at home to improve children's learning?
Children need human connection and feedback to learn. They need you to talk to them, to listen to them, and younger children particularly need you to read to them. Young children (and many older children) also learn best through play so anytime you can make learning a game, you can improve your child’s learning.