Posted on Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Sandra Waxman, Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology, is concerned with a
very big question: What makes us human? The answer, she believes, is
linked to language. And the key to understanding language may come from
understanding how babies think.
“Language is the signature of the human species and a conduit through
which we learn from others and influence their hearts and minds,” says
Waxman, who runs Northwestern’s Project on Child Development. “I’m
interested in infants’ earliest capacities and how they are tuned by
In a 2010 study published in the journal Child Development,
Waxman and two Northwestern colleagues showed that the cognitive
abilities of infants as young as three months are enhanced by hearing
language. In the experiment, babies who heard human language instead of
beeps while looking at animal pictures were able to put the same animals
in a category. Researchers recorded the babies’ eye movements on video
to capture their classification abilities.
“Language helps infants develop concepts,” says Waxman, whose work has
implications for intervening in developmental delays and disabilities.
Waxman was teaching at Harvard University when Northwestern invited her
to give a lecture in Evanston. “I wasn’t looking to make a move,” says
Waxman, a New England native, “but the faculty I met here were
incredible. They asked great questions and the environment was
stimulating.” Not long after her visit, she joined Northwestern’s
Department of Psychology.
Celebrated internationally for her scholarship, Waxman has won numerous
awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011. That same year, she
was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One of her
fellow inductees, legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon, performed at
the ceremony. “It was truly an amazing moment,” says Waxman.
Also the parent of a recent Northwestern graduate, Waxman says, “My
daughter’s time at McCormick [School of Engineering and Applied Science]
was incredible. I couldn’t have hoped for a better college experience
Northwestern’s ascent among the world’s universities has been made
possible in part by the groundbreaking research and teaching of its
faculty. Recruiting and retaining scholars like Waxman is one of the
University’s top priorities. Leadership giving provides Northwestern
with the resources necessary to build and maintain a thriving scholarly
community where outstanding faculty can pursue their work and mentor
students and younger professors.
“Intellectual vibrancy brought me here, and has kept me here,” says
Waxman. “Northwestern has consistently provided me with the freedom and
resources to explore new avenues of inquiry.”
If you are a parent or grandparent and are interested in learning
more about how the infant or young child (up to six years old) in your
life thinks, you are invited to bring them to the Project on Child
Development on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. For more information,
please visit their website or contact them at 847-491-3316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.