On the bank of river Sabarmati, amidst unexpected rains, the newly built IIT Gandhinagar (IITGN) campus hosted the third annual meeting of the Association for Cognitive Science. Cognitive science is a newly emerging discipline in India and the association was formed in 2013. The inter-disciplinary nature of the field makes it imperative to foster dialogue and interaction between its researchers.
True to this ethos, this meeting held for the first time at the Center for Cognitive Science at IITGN brought together neuroscientists, linguists, educators, behavioural scientists, computer scientists, and primatologists for talks, posters and discussion sessions from 3-5 October 2016.
The conference had six symposia where researchers presented short talks on topics in cognitive science, like brain structure and language, motor cognition, perception, decision making, attention, social cognition and emotion. Interspersed were keynote lectures by experts in the field.
The first keynote lecture was by Sonali Nag from The Promise Foundation in Bangalore who works on how children learn akshara-based languages. The akshara is the symbolic unit used in writing in several Indian languages like Tamil, Hindi, Kannada and Bengali and forms the basis for the Brahmi script. Each akshara symbol represents sound roughly at the level of a syllable and is constructed from distinct marks that represent phoneme level sounds. Her research tracks children acquiring proficiency in these languages to study the underlying mechanism by which they acquire this skill.
Following that, Brenden Weekes from the Speech and Hearing Sciences division at the University of Hong Kong called for a reexamination of the practice of correlating cognitive functions to physical structures of the brain. He presented data that showed differences in brain size among Asian and Caucasian brains and implored caution while using standardised structural brain templates. He also showed that brain sizes varied based on sex, age and race and proposed a fundamental reevaluation of some key theoretical issues in the fields of behaviourism, cognitivism and symbolism and the utility of verbal modes of behaviour.
On the second day, key note addresses switched to primate biology from two diametrically different perspectives. Neeraj Jain, National Brain Research Centre, Manesar spoke about the nature of tactile inputs into the brain from the fingers. He showed anatomical and physiological evidence to support the idea that the opposable thumb in macaque monkeys has a modular input pathway to the somatosensory cortex. He argued that such a representation is a reflection of the evolution of opposable thumb, which led to tool use and subsequent cultural evolution.
The second talk was by Anindya Sinha from National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, who shared a framework for analysing cognitive states of primates in his behavioural studies of wild macaque monkeys in the forests surrounding Bangalore. He showed evidence of advanced cognitive behaviour, reflecting their knowledge of others intentionality and tactical deception. Sinha also made a case for developing newer behavioural assays that can be taken to labs for detailed study.
The final day’s keynote lecture was by Srinivasa Chakravarthy, IIT Madras, who shared his latest results on the computational modelling of basal ganglia, a deep structure involved in motor output. His talk outlined intricacies and new hypothesis that supplies a missing piece in the application of reinforcement learning theory to basal ganglia functional anatomy. He argues that this addition can explain a wide range of functions of the basal ganglia.
Active discussions ensued during the networking hour and poster sessions, where more than 120 researchers and students from leading cognitive science research institutes presented their latest research. The heartening aspect of the ACCS 2016 conference for the cognitive science community was the quality of the scientific discourse. In his comments about the meeting, one of the organisers, Pratik Mutha, said “I feel like the number of people interested in this field is growing rapidly and the quality of the work being presented was also significantly better. All this will go a long way in boosting the enthusiasm and participation in cognitive science”.