cognitive tools lab

reverse engineering the human cognitive toolkit

our research


How does the human mind transform a cascade of sensory information into meaningful knowledge?

In the 17th century, the Cartesian coordinate system was groundbreaking. It exposed the unity between two branches of mathematics — algebra and geometry — accelerating the development of the mathematics that took humans to the moon. Yet in the 21st century, this coordinate system is taught in elementary school. A similar story can be told for virtually every domain of scientific knowledge: the phylogenetic tree in biology, the periodic table in chemistry, the formulation of expected utility in behavioral science. Far from inert concepts, these examples may be better thought of as cognitive tools that help people to think and act more effectively. These tools help not only in the moment, but also by catalyzing the expansion of our shared conceptual repertoire over time, and by empowering us to reimagine and remake the world in profound ways.

Our research seeks to develop a unifying framework for understanding the core cognitive mechanisms and functional pressures that explain how such useful abstractions get off the ground and how people harness them so creatively across domains.

To learn more about our ongoing research projects, please check out our recent publications.