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Wed May 1st 2024, 3:45 - 5:00pm
Department of Psychology, Building 420, Room 041

Marina Bedny, Associate Professor, Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Johns Hopkins University

Title: Built to adapt: Insights into the neural basis of cognitive flexibility from blindness and culture

Abstract: What properties of the human brain enables us to adapt to environments as diverse as the Amazonian rainforests, the Arctic tundra and New York City? I will discuss insights into this puzzle from examples of variation in human experience: blindness and cultural expertise. The human brain combines socialization with flexibility. On the one hand, our brains are uniquely equipped to adapt via evolutionarily prepared flexible learning mechanisms, such as social learning through language and domain general reasoning. On the other hand, our adaptability comes from wetware pluripotency: the capacity of neural circuits to assume functions for which they did not evolve. Blindness illustrates both uniquely human flexible learning and neural flexility. By learning socially from linguistic communication, people born blind construct rich mental models of vision, color and light. On the other hand, cortical systems that evolved for visual perception are functionally reorganized, participating in higher-cognitive functions, including language and symbolic math. Blindness repurposes both local circuitry and long-range connectivity of the visual system. Studies of tactile reading: braille suggest that there isn’t a universal neural solution for reading across modalities, rather tactile reading recruits unique parietal mechanisms distinct from visual print. The human brain combines specialization and flexibility to enable unprecedented learning capabilities.