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PhD Defense of Barbu Revencu

Barbu Revencu
Friday, December 15, 2023, 2:00 pm – 6:00 pm

You are cordially invited to the Defense of PhD Thesis


Not a Pipe

STAND-FOR Relations in Human Cognition

by Barbu Revencu.

Primary supervisor: Gergely Csibra
Secondary supervisor: Dan Sperber

Thesis submitted to:
Central European University, Department of Cognitive Science


Local assignments from visually available object symbols to entities under discussion underlie representational STAND-FOR relations and are ubiquitous across many forms of human communication, such as pretend play, puppet shows, diagrams, or animations (e.g., a banana stands for a phone, a puppet stands for an agent).

Chapter 1 lays out a cognitive architecture that can explain how humans represent STAND-FOR relations. The architecture consists of two representational layers—one for the perceptually available symbols (object indexes), one for the entities under discussion (discourse referents)—and an assignment function that maps the object indexes to the discourse referents. Once the mappings are established, the information conveyed through the symbol object is interpreted as applying to the discourse referent. I illustrate the architecture with early object substitution pretense and argue that it provides a better and more general account of pretend play than alternative views.

Chapter 2 asks whether 19-month-old infants take on-screen events to occur in the here and now or think that on-screen events are decoupled from the immediate environment. Across four experiments, I show that infants reject animation–reality crossovers but accept the depiction of the same animated environment on multiple screens. The results are consistent with the possibility that 19-month-olds interpret animations as external representations.

Chapter 3 tests several components of the cognitive architecture outlined in Chapter 1. I present evidence that 15-month-old infants can map arbitrary visual symbols onto familiar discourse referents based on predicative expressions (e.g., “Look! A duck!“) applied to geometric shapes (e.g., a circle). Additional experiments show (i) that infants restrict the assignments to the speaker who stipulated them; (ii) that infants use their conceptual knowledge when interpreting subsequent events involving the symbols; and (iii) that alternative explanations cannot account for the central finding. The results show that the cognitive mechanism underlying the representation of STAND-FOR relations is easily activated and available early in human ontogeny. iv

Chapter 4 moves from infants to adults and asks whether photographs of objects undergo object recognition or symbol interpretation. I present evidence from a Stroop task indicating that adults interpret images of toys as the objects the toys are toys of—not as the toys themselves. A control experiment shows that the association between an image of a toy and the object the toy stands for is not automatic. When images of toys are displayed against the objects the toys represent, adults interpret them as depictions of toys. The results indicate that adults interpret images as symbols and compute what the images stand for even when this is irrelevant to the task at hand.

Chapter 5 provides an overall summary of the empirical findings in Chapters 2–4. I then discuss a recent debate in cognitive development on the use of symbols in research—Theory of Puppets—and link it to the theoretical framework laid out in Chapter 1 and to the experiments in Chapters 2–4. I end by presenting several avenues for future research and one long-term theoretical goal of the project.