Patricia Kuhl Reflects on Receiving Prestigious Award

I-LABS co-director Patricia Kuhl is the 2015 recipient of one of the most prestigious scholarly awards in her field: the George A. Miller Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience.

The Cognitive Neuroscience Society bestows the award each year to a scientist at the "cutting-edge" of the field and whose work is characterized by "extraordinary innovation and high impact on international scientific thinking."

Citing Kuhl's "groundbreaking work on understanding the brain mechanisms enabling early language learning across all cultures," the Cognitive Neuroscience Society presented Kuhl with the award at their annual meeting held March 28-31 in San Francisco.

As part of the ceremony, Kuhl gave a lecture "The Neurogenetics of Language" (see a Storify of the related social media activity during her presentation.)

Kuhl joins other well-known scientists in receiving the prize, including:
- Steven Pinker, Harvard University, author of "The Language Instinct;"
- Michael Posner, University of Oregon, National Medal of Science winner and a leader in the field of attention;
- Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University, author of "Thinking Fast and Slow;" and
- William Newsome, Stanford University, co-leader of the US Human Brain Initiative.

In the Q&A below, Kuhl gives some background on the George A. Miller Prize and shares some insights of her work:

Q: Who is George A. Miller?
A: George A. Miller was one of the founders of the field of cognitive science, along with Jerry Bruner and Noam Chomsky. Miller played an important role in the birth of psycholinguistics and in 1956 authored a famous paper, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which experimentally discovered an average limit of seven for human short-term memory capacity that influenced not only scientists but the number of digits in US telephone numbers.

Q: What do you admire about Miller? What do you consider as other significant contributions he had to the cognitive science field?
A: Working at Harvard University, MIT and Princeton University, Miller started his education focusing on speech and language, collaborating and co-authoring papers with Noam Chomsky that changed the focus to mathematical, computational and psychological aspects of speech and language. At the time, the reigning theory in psychology was behaviorism, which focused only on observable behavior and criticized any attempt to study mental processes. Miller introduced experimental techniques to study the psychology of mental processes, and helped give birth to the new field of cognitive science.

Q: Did you ever meet him?
A: I met George Miller as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s. We were doing a year-long deconstruction of Chomsky's monumental book, Syntactic Structures, and Miller spent two weeks with us. I had a chance to spend some time with him. His basic training was in speech and language, as was mine, so I asked him whether studying speech might be a really good way to address the long-standing debate between nativists and learning theorists on the origins of language. He agreed it would be. I've been doing it ever since!

Q: In receiving the 2015 George A. Miller Prize, you gave a lecture "The Neurogenetics of Language." Genetics is a new line of research for your laboratory: how does it fit with your previous work and what about it is most exciting to you?
A: A scientist always wants to move to the next great question, and for me, discovering how genes play a role in human learning, interacting with brain circuitry, and with environmental opportunity, is the next burning question. (Note: read more about the genetics and language work in an I-LABS story.)

Q: "It has to be social" is the advice you gave attendees at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting about how to encourage young children to learn language. Has the power of social interactions and language learning surprised you? What do you think Miller would have thought of it?
A: I just love being surprised by data, and the discovery that babies need social interaction to learn a new language was quite the surprise! The fact that the social brain serves as a kind of “gate” for early learning is important to scientists, but it’s even more important to parents worldwide. One of Miller’s lifelong friends told me at the conference that George admired my work. I’m both humbled and pleased by that thought.

Media coverage:
Seattle Times' Education Lab