Research Biography of Linda Smith

Linda SmithDr. Linda Smith is one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists. Her research has focused on developmental process and mechanisms of change especially as they relate to early word learning. Her book, with Esther Thelen, “A Dynamical Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action” has been a touchstone for this movement, and tremendously influential on the new generation of cognitive scientists.  The book argues for a complex systems approach to cognitive development in which the functional integrations of sensory, motor processes, memorial and attentional processes in in real time and in specific tasks drives developmental change and for a synthetic systems approach over an analytic (divide and conquer) approach to understanding cognition and development.  Her empirical and theoretical work exemplifies the systems approach showing how children’s early skills in early word learning are built from on attentional, associative, motor and visual processes; that early changes in visual object recognition and in object name learning co-develop, and that the spatial and temporal properties of attention and working memory are tightly tied to the sensory-motor systems of infants and toddlers.  While arguing for a systems approach to cognition and development in terms of multiple component processes that are nested over times scales and levels of analysis, Smith also argues powerfully against classic approaches to cognitive science that focus on discrete reasoning with arbitrary symbols and that in so doing are profoundly adevelopmental and segregate cognition from sensory and motor systems.

Her approach has led to a number of empirical discoveries that broadly inform the study of typical and atypical cognitive development including her early work showing that children perceive their world more holistically than do adults, and that this difference could be formally modeled in terms of a perceptual system that was more broadly tuned in early development and more narrowly tuned later in development; that Piaget’s A-not-B error in early infancy – a phenomenon widely understood as reflecting infants’ concept that objects persist in time and space – reflected the sensory-motor processes of visually-directed reaching.  These findings and insights from dynamic field models of the error yielded a more unified understanding of the overlapping spatio-temporal properties underlying motor planning and attention and are extended in recent work to the role of motor planning and working memory processes in toddlers’ ability to bind names to things. Finally, and perhaps most influentially, she has shown both empirically and in formal models how the statistical structure of language influences the properties that children will attend to, so that when a linguistic label is assigned to an object, shape becomes selectively important for children.  Her careful work has not only documented this “shape bias” but has diagnosed its origins, consequences, and functionality to a developing system, as well as its role in atypical development.  Her work has had broad impact outside as well as within developmental and cognitive psychology, including epigenetic robotics.

Dr. Smith is a Chancellor’s Professor and Distinguished Professor of Psychological and Brain Science, and of Cognitive Science, at Indiana University – Bloomington. She received her B.S from the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in 1973 and her Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania in 1977, and joined the faculty at Indiana in 1977.  She won the American Psychological Association Award for an Early Career Contribution, a Lilly Fellowship, and, from Indiana University, the Tracy Sonneborn Award.  She is a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the American Psychological Society, the Cognitive Science Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her graduate students now occupy prestigious faculty positions around the world.  She has chaired Psychological and Brain Science Department at Indiana University, served on multiple advisory committees concerned with the future directions of science for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, served on the governing boards of the Cognitive Science Society and the International Conference on Development and Learning, and as the chair of the Rumelhart Prize Committee.

Selected Publications


1. Smith, L. B. (1989). A model of perceptual classification in children and adults. Psychological Review. 96. 125-144.

2. Jones, S.S. & Smith, L.B. (1993) The place of perceptions in children’s concepts. Cognitive Development. 8, 113-140.

3. Thelen, E., & Smith, L. B. (1994) A dynamical systems approach to the development of cognition and action. MIT Press.

4. Smith, L.B., Jones, S. &Landau, B. (1996) Naming in young children: A dumb attentional mechanism? Cognition 60, 143-171.

5. Smith, L.B., Thelen, E., Titzer, R, & McLin, D. (1999) Knowing in the context of acting: The task dynamics of the A not-B error. Psychological Review, 106, 235-260.

6. Smith, L.B., Jones, S.S., Landau, B., Gershkoff-Stowe, L. & Samuelson, S. (2002) Early noun learning provides on-the-job training for attention. Psychological Science, 13, 13-19.

7. Smith, L.B. & Gasser, M. (2005) The development of embodied cognition: Six lessons from babies. Artificial Life, 11, 13-30.

8. Colunga, E., & Smith, L. B. (2005). From the lexicon to expectations about kinds: A role for associative learning. Psychological Review, 112(2), 347-382.

9. Smith, L. B. (2009). From fragments to geometric shape: Changes in visual object recognition between 18 and 24 months. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(5), 290-294.

10. Smith, L. B., Yu, C., & Pereira, A. F. (2011) Not your mother’s view: the dynamics of toddler visual experience. Developmental Science, 14 (1), 9-17

11. Yu, C. & Smith, L. B. (2012) Modeling Cross-Situational Word-Referent Learning: Prior Questions. Psychological Review, 119(1), 21-39.

12. Samuelson, L., Smith, L. B., Perry, L. & Spencer, J. (2011) Grounding Word Learning in Space. PLoS One 6(12): e28095. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028095.