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Trends Cogn Sci. 1999 Feb;3(2):48-57.

The constructivist brain.

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Division of Humanities and Social Sciences 228-77, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA.


How do the representations underlying cognitive skills emerge? It is becoming increasingly apparent that answering this question requires integration of neural, cognitive and computational perspectives. Results from this integrative approach resonate with Piaget's central constructivist themes, thus converging on a 'neural constructivist' approach to development, which itself rests on two major research developments. First, accumulating neural evidence for developmental plasticity makes nativist proposals increasingly untenable. Instead, the evidence suggests that cortical development involves the progressive elaboration of neural circuits in which experience-dependent neural growth mechanisms act alongside intrinsic developmental processes to construct the representations underlying mature skills. Second, new research involving constructivist neural networks is elucidating the dynamic interaction between environmentally derived neural activity and developmental mechanisms. Recent neurodevelopmental studies further accord with Piaget's themes, supporting the view of human cortical development as a protracted period of hierarchical-representation construction. Combining constructive growth algorithms with the hierarchical construction of cortical regions suggests that cortical development involves a cascade of increasingly complex representations. Thus, protracted cortical development, while occurring at the expense of increased vulnerability and parental investment, appears to be a powerful and flexible strategy for constructing the representations underlying cognition.


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