Professor of Psychology
2495 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY, 10033
A few keywords about my research
Human communication, experimental semiotics, language emergence, language evolution, joint action, distributed cognition, speech perception and production.
A bit more
My main research goal is to develop a theory of human communication that integrates its physical, cognitive, and social dimensions. Since I could not find a ready-made empirical method to pursue such integration, my first research endeavor was that of developing one.
To simplify the phenomena to be investigated, I focused on the early stages in the creation of novel forms of human communication. Research on deaf people shows that, when there is a need for it, humans can readily develop novel communication systems. Relying on this natural talent, I developed a method that reproduces the essence of this phenomenon in the laboratory, combining the benefits of field studies with those of artificial simulations. Very briefly, the method works as follows. People play a coordination game over the internet. The game requires communication but players cannot see, hear, or touch each other. Instead, they can exchange messages by using a magnetic stylus on a small digitizing pad. The resultant tracings are relayed to the computer screens of both players in real time but, when this happens, they undergo a systematic transformation. Because of this transformation, when people trace well-known graphic forms such as letters or other symbols on the pad, what appears on the screen is practically impossible to recognize as what was traced. To win at the game, players have to craft a novel communication system based on visual forms. Consistent with the research on deaf people, this is a challenge players can readily meet. If you want to know more about this story, you can read this brief summary* or the full paper here.
Once I found a viable method for pursuing my research interests, I focused on two main endeavors. First, together with other scholars who were developing similar methods, I begun to publicize this new approach which, for convenience, we named Experimental Semiotics (ES). This endeavor led to a number of editorial projects, listed here.
The second endeavor has been to use ES methods to capture the core design principles of human communication systems. In particular, I have been focusing on combinatoriality—the recombination of a small set of basic meaningless forms to express an infinite number of meanings (think of phonology in real-world languages). Through a number of ES studies, my colleagues and I have investigated the relationship between combinatoriality and two other properties of relevance to human communication: rapidity of fading and iconicity. In brief, what we discovered so far is that the emergence of combinatoriality is favored by high levels of rapidity of fading and low levels of iconicity. The publications which resulted from this research are listed here. Also, on a related project, we used mathematical models of large-scale language games to investigate the conditions under which combinatoriality may emerge simultaneously with compositionality—the recombination of meaningful forms (think of morphology in real-world languages). Here you can find out more about this story.
ES research has also produced an unexpected finding: Sometimes people fail miserably at creating novel forms of communication, and most of the failures occur because of severe limitations in communicative skills. In other words, by removing the communicative options people have received from the communities they belong to, we have laid bare the natural human potential for communication and, generally speaking, this does not seem to be very impressive.
A new line of my research focuses on the consequences of this observation. In particular, an intriguing likely consequence of the presence of ill-equipped communicators is that everyday communication may include a fair amount of communicative chaos, to which we are not necessarily sensitive. This is indeed what we found in a laboratory study in which a surprising number of people failed to notice that we had introduced chaos into their spontaneous conversations. The basics of this study are described in this short article. If you want to know more, you can read the full story here.
* All of the materials provided are the sole copyright of the respective publishers. Materials are provided for educational use only. Downloading of materials constitutes an agreement that the materials are for personal use only.