Over the life of the Centre, numerous Public Events were held, including:
- Dementia, Old Age, Memory
- Childhood Language Development, SLI, Bilingualism
- Dyslexia and Learning to Read and Spell
- Exploring New Technology: TMS, TDCS, Doppler, Emotiv
- Mental Health
- Hearing, Hearing Loss, and the Brain
- Neurodevelopmental Disorders
Empathy and Morality: An Interdisciplinary Perspective
Professor Jean Decety, University of Chicago, USA
Hosted by the Belief Formation Program
Empathy, the ability to perceive and be sensitive to the emotional states of others, motivates prosocial and caregiving behaviours, plays a role in inhibiting aggression, and facilitates cooperation between members of a similar social group. This is probably why empathy is often and wrongly confused with morality, which refers to prescriptive norms regarding how people should treat one another, including concepts of justice, fairness, and rights. Drawing on empirical research and theory from evolutionary biology, psychology and social neuroscience, Professor Decety argued that our sensitivity to others' needs has been selected in the context of parental care and group living. One corollary of this evolutionary model is that empathy produces social preferences that can conflict with morality. This claim is supported by a wealth of empirical findings in neuroscience and behavioural economics documenting a complex and equivocal relation between empathy, morality and justice. Empathy alone is powerless in the face of rationalisation and denial. It is reason that provides the push to widen the circle of empathy from the family and the tribe to humanity as a whole.
Professor Elizabeth (Liz) Pellicano, Macquarie University
Hosted by the Person Perception Program
Autism affects millions of citizens in Australia and across the globe. Despite widespread public interest in autism, autistic people and their families have rarely been actively engaged in the research process. They have largely not been given the opportunity to decide research priorities, shape how an issue is researched, or help draw out practical lessons from research. Many have reported feeling disenfranchised as a result. Developing ways to involve autistic people and their allies, in deciding which topic to research, the way an issue is researched, how it becomes funded, who undertakes the research and so on, is one key way both to rebuild feelings of trust and to ensure that a greater portion of research has a direct and sustained impact on those who need it most.
Autism researchers do not do this enough, and indeed, scientists are often reticent about involving community members in their research. But can non-autistic scientists ever really understand what autistic people and their families need from their research? In this presentation, Professor Pellicano contended that truly understanding autism, ‘knowing autism’, requires both objective and subjective understandings, experiences and expertise, which can be achieved by listening, learning and involving autistic people and their families in research. She has investigated in depth what the autistic community rightly demands of autism research and the major changes that will need to be made to deliver on their expectations.
The Promiscuous Hippocampus: The Role of the Medial Temporal Lobe in the Memory, Perception and Emotion
Professor Andrew Yonelinas, University of California, Davis, USA
Hosted by the Memory Program
Our ability to remember the important events that make up our lives is critically dependent on the medial temporal lobe. However, recent work has suggested that different sub-regions within the medial temporal lobe may support distinct mnemonic processes and that they may play important roles in cognitive tasks beyond traditional tests of long-term episodic memory. Professor Yonelinas described work showing that the hippocampus plays a central role in binding together and subsequently recollecting the different aspects that make up an episode or event, whereas other regions such as the perirhinal cortex can support familiarity-based memory discriminations even when recollection fails. In addition, he presented evidence that the hippocampus is involved in supporting short-term memory and even visual perception, when those tasks involve high-resolution or complex bindings. Professor Yonelinas then focused on the unique role of emotion in episodic memory and showed that the amygdala supports recollection of emotional bindings that exhibit relatively slow forgetting compared to hippocampal bindings. Finally, he examined the effects of acute stress on different medial temporal lobe regions and presented data showing that post-encoding stress can rescue memory from the effects of forgetting by acting as a mnemonic filter.
How Grammar Creates Meaning
Professor Gennaro Chierchia, Harvard University, USA
Hosted by the Language Program
Humans communicate through language: verbal languages, or sign languages. How do words and sentences or gestures acquire meaning? One way to think about it is to view language as a labeling device: nouns are used as conventional labels for things (e.g., the English noun tableis a label for, well, tables) and verbs are labels for actions (e.g. to breaklabels actions like demolishing, shattering, and the like); and in virtue of these conventional associations, sequences of words can be used to convey facts about the world, or to tell stories. Professor Chierchia promoted a different view of language structure. He proposed that there are two main types of words in language. Words like table or break, which are known as ‘content words’, indeed have primarily a labelling/referential function. But then there are words like or, if, no, even, any,often called ‘function words’. He believes that meaning stems primarily from the latter category of function words. It is in function words that a sort ‘spontaneous logic’ hides, through which we give shape to our thoughts. So the path is from grammar to meaning via logic. Professor Chierchia illustrated this point by showing how many sentences that are perceived as ‘ill formed’ or ‘agrammatical’ owe their marginal status to being logical contradictions (albeit, subconscious ones). This leads to a fairly radical re-thinking of how grammar works.
Optimizing Early Reading Interventions for At-Risk Children
Professor Robert Savage, University College London, UK
Hosted by the Reading Program
Professor Savage and his team explore the best strategies that can be used to support children who are showing difficulty with developing reading skills in early primary school. They have conducted studies evaluating the effects of specific interventions that might help poor readers to improve their reading skills. English differs from other languages because the same spelling can be pronounced in different ways across different words. The complexity in the relationship between letters and sounds is one of the challenges to early reading skill development. It is thus important to understand how letter-to-sound rules (or grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences) are used by children when reading sentences and passages of text. In this presentation, Professor Savage described a series of intervention studies carried out with grade 1 and 2 at-risk poor readers from regular classrooms in two provinces in Canada. In the first study they explored 'direct mapping' of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences to their representations in connected texts and the teaching of 'set-for-variability' strategies which allow the matching of a spelling pronunciation against a stored word in 199 at-risk poor readers in grade 1. In the second study, of children in grade 2, they explored applications of an approach to reading instruction that seeks the simplest interventions (known as the Simplicity Principle), which taught 94 below average early readers the most beneficial/common letter-to-sound relationships. Both reading intervention studies found measurable improvements in standardised reading tests for the at-risk students. Implications of findings and further programmatic studies were also discussed.