Our human cognitive skills trump those of our primate relatives in many domains, ranging from logical reasoning to managing complex social lives and from tool-use to language. A basic yet powerful faculty might underlie many of these characteristic functions of the human mind: instant abstract inference. Humans can quickly infer high-order abstract relationships, even between physically separate objects and across sensory modalities. Interestingly, other primates need to learn these relationships by gradual reinforcement over hundreds of trials while they have no problem learning relationships between physically linked objects. I will test the hypothesis that abstract inference has evolved as a critical and uniquely human cognitive faculty, building upon neural mechanisms of physical inference and multi-sensory integration that we share with other primates.
The evolutionary emergence of this faculty likely relies on the relative re-organization of large-scale connections in the human brain compared to those in other primates since our last common ancestor. Recent evidence highlights two candidate pathways, the arcuate bundle and the extreme capsule, but their role in the evolution of human cognition, and specifically language, remains highly disputed. Using novel comparative neuroanatomy methods exclusively available at Oxford University, I will map these networks in macaque monkeys, chimpanzee apes, and humans in unprecedented detail, quantifying potential shifts in connectivity. Second, I will target the altered connections isolated in study 1 using an innovative combined neurostimulation and neuroimaging approach testing whether and how they enable abstract inference in humans.
This project unites two previously isolated fields of science: cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Together, these two avenues of research will provide a complete picture of the neural mechanisms and evolutionary uniqueness of a fundament of characteristically human cognition.
Fields of science
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