Research News

Vlach, Matthews earn Understanding Human Cognition awards from McDonnell Foundation

September 19, 2018

UW-Madison’s Haley Vlach and Percival Matthews each recently received an Understanding Human Cognition Scholar Award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF).

These awards, of which only 10 were given out this year, each provide $600,000 of funding to be used over the next six years.

Haley Vlach
Vlach is an associate professor with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology and is the director of the Learning, Cognition, and Development (LCD) Lab. Her project that’s receiving funding via JSMF is titled, “The Development of Higher-Order Cognition: Words, Categories, and Concepts.”


"I am honored to receive this award from an organization that I admire so much,” says Vlach. “I look forward to starting this line of research, which will address fundamental questions about children's cognitive development and generate new technologies for studying children's learning.”

Matthews is an assistant professor with the School of Education's Department of Educational Psychology and he heads the Mathematics Education Learning and Development Lab. Matthews’ project being fundg by JSMF is called, “Theoretical and Pedagogical Implications of the Nonsymbolic Ratio Processing System.”

Percival Matthews
“This award is truly humbling,” says Matthews. “One of the first things you learn upon entering academia is about how many people are doing great work. To be selected from amongst my peers means a lot. I deeply respect this award. It will be of great help in helping me push my agenda to forge greater connections between math education research and cognitive psychology as I strive to find ways to translate insights from basic research into forms that aid everyday educational practice."


The Understanding Human Cognition Scholars Awards were revamped in 2010 in an effort to re-emphasize the central role of cognitive psychology in advancing the understanding of neural and cognitive bases of behavior. At that time, the James S. McDonnell Foundation reiterated its commitment to research applying cognitive principles to problems in teaching, learning, and recovery from brain injuries.

JSMF utilizes a rather novel approach to soliciting applications for this award, as proposals are accepted by nomination only. The foundation works in confidence with a broad network of senior scholars in cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology and cognitive science to help identify potential applicants. Selected applicants are then contacted and invited to submit proposals for review by the JSMF Understanding Human Cognition Advisory Panel. Following review, applications recommended for funding are presented to the JSMF Board of Directors for final funding consideration.

Founded in 1950 by aerospace pioneer James S. McDonnell, JSMF was established to "improve the quality of life," and does so by contributing to the generation of new knowledge through its support of research and scholarship.

Following are summaries, produced by the researchers themselves and hosted on the JSMF website, of Vlach and Matthews’ projects that are designed to better understand human cognition:


The Development of Higher-Order Cognition: Words, Categories, and Concepts

In the first few years of life, children accomplish seemingly impossible developmental feats in human cognition. Children learn one or more languages, acquire categories and complex concepts, and generate a broad understanding of the world. Given that children’s early experiences are the foundation for their later learning, researchers, including myself, have sought to elucidate the mechanisms that allow children to learn from these experiences.

My research approach to studying children’s word, category, and concept learning is two-fold. First, I use a bottom-up approach to understand cognitive development. That is, I have been interested in how basic cognitive processes, such as attention and memory mechanisms, give rise to the emergence of higher-order cognition. Children enter the world with only basic cognitive capacities; my work has sought to understand how these basic capacities are used as building blocks for later learning. My work has shown that lower-level processes that historically have been argued to be constraints on cognition are actually critical mechanisms for facilitating cognitive development. For instance, forgetting has been argued to constrain children’s learning, but my research has demonstrated that forgetting drives the abstraction of relevant and irrelevant information.

The second part of my research approach is to examine interactions between learning words and categories. That is, once children learn new words, how does this affect the development of higher-order cognition? My general hypothesis is this: words have inductive potential; learning words can help children to acquire new categories and concepts which, in turn, helps them learn more words. For example, knowing “color” may help children learn the words for specific colors, but it may also help them induce color as a relevant grouping dimension on a nonverbal task. These word and category learning processes result in bi-directional interactions in the development of higher-order cognition.

My future work will use several research methods to study lower-level processes in word, category, and concept learning, and interactions of higher-order cognition. My lab will tap into what and how children learned with a multi-method approach, such as by behavioral testing, standardized testing, longitudinal studies, and eye-tracking. Critically, my lab will focus on developing new technologies for answering questions that require fine-grained, day-to-day learning trajectories in language and cognitive development. For instance, my colleagues and I are designing an app that will allow parents, teachers, and clinicians to document milestones in language and cognitive development, such as when children first comprehend or produce new words. The long-term goal of this work is to make the app freely available to the public, eventually leading to a large data corpus from which researchers can answer long-standing questions in language and thought.


Theoretical and Pedagogical Implications of the Nonsymbolic Ratio Processing System

Symbolic numbers emerged late enough on the human evolutionary time scale that they clearly could not have influenced the evolution of our species. Still, humans are remarkably efficient at processing numbers. Indeed, we are so familiar with numbers that we exhibit numerical Stroop effects: when asked to determine which of two digits is physically larger, educated adults are slower and less accurate when the physically smaller digit has the larger numerical value. This means humans are so competent with numbers that we automatically process their magnitudes (or sizes), even when they are irrelevant to the task at hand. How is it that the human brain can support such fluid processing of numerical symbols when it clearly did not evolve to do so? What basic capacities existed that have been recycled to form a basis for supporting number concepts? My research seeks to uncover answers to these questions, particularly as they apply to fractions and other numbers that cannot be reached by counting.

One frequently proffered answer regarding the origins of our number sense points to some basic perceptual abilities that allow humans and other species to rapidly estimate the sizes of sets of discrete objects. One such ability, subitizing, allows us to rapidly and exactly enumerate small sets of objects. Another, the approximate number system (or ANS), allows us to rapidly determine the approximate sizes of much larger sets (e.g., an array of sixty dots). Several researchers have argued that the acquisition of numerical concepts rests upon these evolutionarily inherited enumeration abilities that serve as “neurocognitive startup tools” for number concepts. These theorists privilege whole numbers, concluding that other classes of numbers, such as fractions and irrational numbers, exceed the innate constraints of these core abilities. Thus, the countable numbers have been dubbed the “natural” numbers, and others are deemed the products of human artifice, as exemplified by the mathematician Kronecker’s famous proclamation that, “God made the integers; all the rest is the work of man” (Bell, 1986, p. 477).

My work investigates an alternative to these innate constraints accounts of the human number sense. Specifically, I and others have begun to detail the human ability to perceptually access the magnitudes of nonsymbolic ratio magnitudes (i.e., ratios composed of pairs of nonsymbolic stimuli, such as two line segments with lengths in a 2:3 ratio). This work stands to contribute to basic science and to applied education research in multiple ways. First, it extends accounts of the primitive human number sense to include relationally defined magnitudes, like fractions. Second, it seeks to situate theories of numerical processing into theories regarding human perception of size more generally, be it the number of dots in an array, the area of a circle, or the loudness of a sound. Finally, it offers new hypotheses on how educators might rely on this basic perceptual ability to improve instruction about important concepts like fractions.