ICS Colloquium: Dedre Gentner, Ph.D.

Title: Language and the Relational Mind

Presenter: Director, Cognitive Science Program, Northwestern University

Abstract:  Relational learning and reasoning is central to higher-order cognition. It is essential in mathematics and science, and equally essential in social and moral reasoning. Yet learning relational concepts is challenging, because, unlike concrete objects, relations are difficult to individuate in perceptual experience.  I suggest that relational knowledge is acquired largely through analogical comparison processes. Analogical comparison engages a process of structure-mapping that (a) highlights common relational systems, which may then serve as abstractions for later transfer; (b) invites inferences, typically from the more familiar item to the less familiar one; and (c) reveals alignable differences between the two analogs. 

The power of analogical comparison is amplified by language. Hearing a common label for two situations invites comparison between them, fostering abstraction of a common concept. This is critical for relational concepts such as barrier or carnivore, whose members lack surface similarity.  Further, labeling a relational abstraction encourages retention and reuse of the abstraction and facilitates combinatorial processing.

I will discuss work on how comparison fosters relational learning, on factors that impede or support this learning, and on how structure-mapping processes interact with relational language to accelerate relational learning. Finally, although analogical processing is thought of as a sophisticated process, there is evidence that the same kinds of structure-mapping processes occur in adults and children, and even in infants—implying that powerful learning processes are at work even in the first years of life.

Bio: Dedre Gentner is the Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor of Psychology and Education at Northwestern University. Professor Gentner was a Co-Principle-Investigator for the NSF Science of Learning Center on Spatial Intelligence and Learning (SILC). She is a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society and of the American Association for Arts and Sciences. Prior to joining the Northwestern faculty in 1990, Gentner taught at the University of Washington and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work has received recognition in the field: she was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award in 2013, the APA Distinguished Scientific Contributions in 2016, and the David E. Rumelhart Prize for Contributions to the Theoretical Foundations of Human Cognition in 2016.

 Gentner is best known for her work in analogical reasoning, especially the development of the structure-mapping theory of comparison processing, and for her work on language learning, especially the claim that nouns predominate over verbs and other relational terms cross-linguistically. Gentner has applied structure-mapping theory to learning and reasoning in children and adults, to metaphor processing, and to scientific discovery, most notably in her papers on Kepler.  In collaboration with Ken Forbus of Computer Science, she co-developed the Structure-Mapping Engine, an influential computational model of analogical processing. In recent work she has combined these two lines of research, arguing that structural alignment and mapping is critical to language learning, and that learning relational language contributes to analogical ability.  

Her writings include three co-edited volumes—Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Thought” (2003); The Analogical Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science (2001) and Mental Models (1983)—as well as over two hundred articles and chapters.

Friday, April 12 at 12:00pm to 2:00pm

Muenzinger Psychology, Room E214
1905 Colorado Avenue, Boulder, CO 80309

Event Type



Science & Technology, Research & Innovation


Students, Faculty, Graduate Students, Postdoc

College, School & Unit

Graduate School


ICS, ICSColloquiaSeries

Institute of Cognitive Science


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