What’s the mechanism?

Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development’s 21st anniversary celebration.

20 November 2019

The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD), part of the Department of Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, was founded in 1998. Mark Johnson (Birkbeck, Cambridge), founding director of the CBCD, opened the CBCD’s 21st anniversary celebration with a history of the centre. It was established when Johnson, along with Gergely Csibra (Birkbeck, Central European University) and Leslie Tucker (Birkbeck), moved to Birkbeck from the Cognitive Development Unit at UCL.

At the time of the centre’s creation, child development research was generally undertaken in small labs, looking at one age band, in one domain, using one method, and investigating one disorder (with some exceptions). The CBCD aimed to conduct interdisciplinary research, both theoretical and empirical, using converging methods, longitudinally – a mission that hasn’t changed much, explained Johnson. Since the CBCD’s inception, the centre has attracted £38 million in grants and infrastructure that has enabled 15,000 baby testing sessions, as well as child, adolescent, and adult testing sessions.

The 39 talks delivered over the two-day celebration showcased how researchers have worked towards the mission of the CBCD during and after their time in the centre. Michael Thomas (Birkbeck) spoke about his initial impressions on joining the CBCD in 2002 – one of which was that the researchers were very bothered with where babies were looking. Indeed, Csibra said that the most cited paper from the CBCD is ‘Eye contact detection in humans from birth’, and many of the talks featured baby eye-tracking.

Denis Mareschal (Birkbeck), current director of the CBCD, picked up on another of the centre’s key interests: investigating causal mechanisms. During my own four and a half years in the centre, the question ‘what’s the mechanism?’ came to be anticipated (sometimes dreaded!) after any presentation. Mechanisms can’t be measured, explained Mareschal, they are theoretical constructs. One way to test the plausibility of theoretical mechanisms is computational modelling – an example of how multiple methods can provide converging evidence. Collaboration through multi-disciplinary work can be a challenge, explained Maria Laura Filippetti (Essex), since different disciplines often speak different languages. But ultimately, Filippetti said these collaborations lead to a comprehensive understanding and can be extremely rewarding.

Some senior researchers gave examples of the sometimes surprisingly fruitful collaborations with students and postdocs; junior researchers had suggested novel study ideas that supervisors thought would never work but turned out to be interesting and successful. The ability of researchers to change their minds was further touched on, with Victoria Southgate (Copenhagen) changing her mind about what infants are doing on a task, and others changing their minds about what they want to research.

Annette Karmiloff-Smith was remembered fondly by those who worked with her. Gaia Scerif (Oxford), a self-described CBCD wannabe who has collaborated with the centre, spoke of Karmiloff-Smith as a good mentor who signposted Scerif to experts in the right topics. Both Scerif and Hana D’Souza (Cambridge) were influenced by Karmiloff-Smith’s cross-syndrome approach, tracking and comparing the development of different syndromes over time. Sam Wass (East London) found Karmiloff-Smith’s articles easy to navigate early in his career, as unlike researchers who are not explicit about their opinion, she was very clear about her position with statements like ‘Contra Fodor, I argue that…’.        

So what does the future of the CBCD hold? A TodderLab is coming in 2020, to fill the ‘black hole’ of developmental cognitive neuroscience research among this mobile age group. Wireless wearable technology will enable researchers to explore learning in a realistic environment, where studies don’t require participants to sit still and follow strict instructions. The new facilities will help the CBCD further explore developmental trajectories and their underlying mechanisms through collaborative, interdisciplinary, multi-method, theory-driven research. Here’s to the next 21 years!

- Find out more about the centre.

Further reading

A scientific strategy for life chances - Michael Thomas

A revolution for the at-risk - Emily J.H. Jones and Mark Johnson make the case for investment in early intervention in neurodevelopmental disorders

Developing human brain functions - Mark Johnson from 2009

Learning from educational neuroscience - the then Annie Brookman with her first of many contributions to The Psychologist…

Understanding malnourishment in a longitudinal project

More on the ToddlerLab

Annette Karmiloff-Smith - an appreciation and more from the archive