My work has focused on the psychology of concepts, with a special interest in how concepts relate to word meaning and language comprehension. One major issue is how knowledge is involved in the initial acquisition of a concept. Many theories of concept learning are purely associative or formal accounts in which the properties of objects are associated to the concept (e.g., you see whiskers when you hear the word cat, so you associate whiskers with cats). But much research has now shown that people's knowledge of a domain influences the kinds of features they attend to and learn about. For example, you might pay attention to whether an animal has whiskers but not to the time of day in which you saw it, because time plays no role in understanding of biological kinds. My work has attempted to understand how knowledge affects learning and use of concepts, through tasks such as category learning, induction, and speeded categorization. Ultimately, we hope to develop a theory of how empirical information (like seeing whiskers on cats) combines with prior knowledge to result in a whole conceptual representation.
One important application of research on concepts is its connection to the mental representation of word meanings. There is reason to think that when we use the word chair, say, in a sentence, people understand it by accessing their concept of chairs. Our research has been working out the implications of this claim, especially in the area of conceptual combination, which asks how we understand novel combinations of concept terms, like sewer golf plan or microwave coupons. Recently, I have become interested in the phenomenon of polysemy, which refers to a word having a number of related meanings (e.g., chicken referring to a whole animal or some meat; paper referring to a substance or an oral presentation at a conference). My students and I have been studying polysemy by using traditional psycholinguistic techniques such as priming, as well as by making up our own words and meanings. We have found that there is a relationship between conceptual measures of words (classification and induction) and psycholinguistic measures (priming, comprehension). An important goal of such work is to eventually forge a link between the psychology of concepts and psycholinguistic theories of language use.
I will not be accepting new PhD students for next year.