BCSC 172: Development of Mind and Brain

Cross-listed: PSYC/1COG 172
Prerequisites: None
Offered: Spring, Summer

This course is an introduction to human development, focusing on the ability to perceive objects and sounds, to think and reason, to learn and remember language and other significant patterned stimulation. It includes discussion of the nature and mechanisms of development in human infants and children, as well as an overview of what is known about the development of behavior and brain in the young of other species.

The general framework of the course will be the 'nature/nurture issue': how is the development of high-level mental processes shaped by innate factors, how is it shaped by environmental factors and learning, and how do these factors interact in the developmental process? In order to consider these factors and their interaction, the course will begin by studying the development of interesting species-typical behaviors in animals; for example, we will examine the acquisition of songs and calls by birds, the acquisition of nest building by various species, the 'imprinting' of ducks and birds on other members of their species, and the calibration of visual and spatial abilities in owls and cats. This overview of animal development will provide us with a background to the types of interactions between biology and learning that are understood to occur in non-humans. We will then overview the development of the brain in animals and humans. With these backgrounds we will then turn to considering the development of a variety of aspects of perception, cognition, and language in human infants and children.

Our focus on humans will begin with the study of the ability to see and hear in newborn infants, and how these senses develop prenatally and over the first year of life. We will then examine the ability of human infants to understand the physical world: how they acquire the knowledge that objects are solid, usually rigid, and continue to exist even when they are out of view. We will also consider how they begin to understand that animate objects (particularly other people) move through the world by a somewhat different set of principles than those that govern inanimate objects. Next we will consider how memory and complex concepts develop, and how young children acquire more advanced abilities to think and reason. Finally, we will examine how infants learn their native languages, which begins with organizing the sounds of these languages and culminates in the learning of how to form words and sentences. In each of these arenas we will discuss the contributions of innate tendencies or knowledge, the contributions of learning from experience, the possible interactions of these sources of information, and the domains in which there may be critical or sensitive periods of development, in which learning is limited to a specific maturational window. Throughout these topics we will also discuss the methods by which scientists study human development, particularly the unusual methods which have been devised to study young infants in the laboratory, and we will encourage students in the class to begin to think about how they might study some of these questions themselves.

No previous background is assumed. This course will provide an introduction to the area suitable for students of any background. Completion of the course will provide appropriate background for a range of higher level courses (some of these also require BCSC 110 or 111), may form part of a major in Brain & Cognitive Sciences, Psychology, Linguistics, Cognitive Science, or other concentrations, and will be particularly useful for students hoping to pursue a career in any natural or social sciences involving development.