June 6, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 19

current issue
archive / search

    Faculty Award for Graduate Teaching: Lawrence Barsalou

    As Lawrence Barsalou works with his graduate students, readying them for careers in research, he often thinks of his own preparation as a graduate student.

    "My adviser, Gordon Bower, took the training of graduate students very seriously," said Barsalou, Professor in Psychology. "He is one of the leading figures in cognitive psychology, yet he has always spent a great deal of time working with students."

    As Barsalou works with students, he emulates his mentor by establishing high standards as well as developing a productive dialogue with his students. The approach is proving to be successful -- he and a group of his graduate students are making valuable contributions to the theory of human knowledge, attempting to understand and demonstrate its perceptual and situated character.

    "Modern cognitive psychology is a laboratory science, so much of what I do is work with students as they do laboratory work," Barsalou said. "I talk with them constantly about running experiments, about how to develop hypotheses and the technical ways of testing hypotheses. We work together as a team, where each student takes primary responsibility for one major program of research in the general project."

    Barsalou meets with his students in weekly sessions to discuss projects in the lab. "Much of our progress is the result of our discussions in lab meetings," he said.

    Barsalou began working with his current set of students about four years ago. The group is composed of four psychology students -- Barbara Luka, Karen Solomon, Ling-Ling Wu and Wenchi Yeh -- and Jesse Prinz, a philosophy student.

    "We have a great chemistry and have really worked well together. Any success I've enjoyed recently is a reflection of their quality," Barsalou said. As a result of the collaboration, Barsalou and the students have been co-authors on several papers published in professional journals.

    The group is examining a re-emerging and controversial issue in psychology -- intelligence as a multimodal system in which the higher cognitive processes are grounded in perceptual systems of the brain.

    "It's as if the mind is a multimedia system that is orders of magnitude more sophisticated than any multimedia computer we currently have," Barsalou said. "According to this theory, the brain has sophisticated abilities to capture and schematize perceptual information to form conceptual building blocks, which can later be recombined in infinite ways to perceptually simulate entities and events in their absence.

    "This basic process underlies all cognitive activity, including language, memory and thought. This view is controversial because most current theories assume that knowledge is largely nonperceptual, structured primarily by logical and statistical relations."

    Besides developing a theory of perceptually grounded knowledge, Barsalou and his students have developed several new laboratory paradigms for evaluating this theory in humans. In these paradigms, human subjects are asked to process concepts, and a variety of indirect measurements are made to assess the extent to which perceptual processing is occurring. Thus far, these paradigms have provided considerable evidence that perceptual simulation underlies conceptual processing.

    Barsalou's research in human knowledge is based on an interest in the way people form concepts and use them in memory, language and thought. He is the author of Cognitive Psychology: An Overview for Cognitive Scientists (1992) and numerous articles on memory and knowledge. Before joining the University faculty in 1993, he served on the faculties at Emory, Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan.

    -- William Harms