The Cultural Foundations of Cognition


Start Date: Dec 04, 2020 - 10:00am

Location: Presented via Zoom

On Friday, December 4 at 10 am Dr. Helen E. Davis (UNM PhD, 2014) presented her talk The Cultural Foundations of Cognition via zoom as part of the Anthropology Colloquia Speaker Series, Anthropology in 2020.  

Abstract: A growing body of evidence from neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and economics now suggests that human minds adapt themselves ontogenetically to the culturally-constructed and institutionally-incentivized environments that people encounter while growing up. Drawing on this broad constellation of findings, this talk will examine a suite of hypotheses regarding specific aspects of cognition related to one particular Western institution, which has spread across the globe, particularly during the 20th century—formal schooling. Using data from two natural experiments—along the Namibian-Angolan border and within lowland Bolivia—this talk will focus on how relatively small “dosages” of formal schooling may influence fundamental aspects of cognition and learning during childhood. Prior efforts in establishing these causal connections are often hampered by an extreme reliance on Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic (WEIRD) populations, where schooling has been mandatory and nearly universal for generations. In such ontogenetically novel environments, the impact of formal schooling on cognition and learning can easily be confused with species-wide maturational processes. Additionally, this talk will discuss how the research project puts findings into practice, how the team ensures communities have ownership of the research, and how communities can utilize findings beyond the tenure of our project.

Helen Elizabeth Davis is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. Her research focuses on the evolution of childhood, social learning, and cognition across the human lifecourse. Davis received her PhD from the University of New Mexico in Evolutionary Anthropology. Utilizing a natural experiment among the Tsimane, her research at UNM focused on the effects of school quality on children's abstract reasoning skills. She continues to work with the Tsimane, and she has established her own fieldsite in northern Namibia and southern Angola among the OvaTwa and Himba peoples. Davis is the cofounder and current president of One Pencil Project, a 501(c)(3) education and disaster relief nonprofit.

Hosted by the Department of Anthropology and the Alfonso Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies, the Department Colloquia Speaker Series will be held virtually via Zoom on Fridays at 10 am.  Upcoming speakers include (more details forthcoming): 

Dec 11 Amanda Lea (Princeton)