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The Origin of Abstract Combinatorial Thought
Graduate Program (& Advanced Certificate) Status
Course Description

This course introduces students to questions that target the origins of abstract combinatorial thought aiming to identify which may be the core abilities that humans may rely on to make unique achievements that range from inventing and deciphering complex symbolic systems in language or mathematics to building spaceships, and complex jurisprudential systems, among many others. Specifically, it aims to identify the core human abilities that allow us to go beyond the here and now, generalize from sparse evidence, form abstract concepts, represent thematic roles or propositional attitudes and combine simple concepts into various ways to form more complex ones. Along the course we will analyse theoretical proposals and experimental developmental and comparative evidence targeting which of the possible core abilities may be present in early development, how much they are independent of language and whether they are human specific. For instance, we will ask whether in the absence of a fully-fledged language young infants are able to form representations and rely on processes that may be crucial for abstract combinatorial thought, such as extracting abstract regularities, or relations, and flexibly combine simple concepts into more complex ones, and perform inferences involving disjunction or negation. The course also aims to familiarize students with research methods used with infants and comparative research, including behavioural, eye-tracking and neuroimaging methods.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the course, students should

  • be familiar with the main theoretical proposals and main research findings that speak about the origins of abstract combinatorial thought in infants, adults, and other species
  • understand the difficulties of research with human infants, and comparative research
  • have a basic grasp of the methods used with infants and other species, and
  • be able to critically analyze research paradigms and theoretical proposals.

Students will have to

  • attend classes
  •  read the assigned papers for each class,
  • present selected papers to the class, and
  • write an experimental proposal in a related question
Course Level
Academic Year
US Credits
ECTS Credits
Course Code