Human cognitive neuroscience seminar

Speaker: Neil Bramley (Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology, The University of Edinburgh)

Title: Bounded learning as active exploration in the world and in the mind

Abstract: Humans form rich causal models of the world that support prediction, explanation, planning and control. While Bayesian methods help formalize how such representations can be learned from data, they are only tractable in the simplest cases. Thus, a key question is how bounded human learners succeed in the face of the world’s formidable complexity. I will discuss two projects aimed at unravelling this mystery.

The first project investigates how people learn about probabilistic causal systems by performing interventions (actions that perturb a system of interest, like pushing a button, taking a medicine, or implementing a policy). Across a line of studies and extensive model comparison, I show that people adjust their causal representations in a piecemeal fashion, making small local changes rather than more extensive “Kuhnian” revisions. I formalize this with a model inspired by algorithms for approximating Bayesian inference, and use this model to explain how bounded learners can find high probability hypotheses even in complex learning domains. In the second project, I ask how people learn interactively about the physical world. Participants interact with microworlds governed by simulated Newtonian physics with the goal of inferring masses and local forces. Using a simulation-based inference model, I show that they perform sequences of actions that have the structure of informal experiments which reveal target properties while minimizing noise. Across these projects my algorithmic account suggests that humans succeed at learning complex representations by striking a mutually supportive balance between exploring in the world – actively interacting with their surroundings – and in the mind – actively adapting their theories and generating new hypotheses.


The seminars are organised by the Human Cognitive Neuroscience research group. For further information, or if you would like to join the e-mail list for these seminars, please email Andreea Stamate or Carolane Hélin.

Human cognitive neuroscience

Andreea Stamate

Carolane Hélin

Feb 06 2019 -

Human cognitive neuroscience seminar

2019-02-06: Bounded learning as active exploration in the world and in the mind

Seminar room 1, Chrystal Macmillan Building, 15a George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LD