Dr Sarah Gerson
My research focuses on how infants and young children come to understand and engage in the social world in which they live.
During my graduate career, I conducted research exploring the active role infants play in creating experiences that help them understand the world around them. Specifically, I examined the role active experience, observational experience, and comparison processes play in recognizing goals at the origins of action understanding. More recently, I have built upon this foundation to examine how young children engage in cooperative actions with others. I use a variety of measures to address these topics, including looking times, eyetracking, imitation and other overt behavioral measures, electroencephalography (EEG), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).
- Illinois State University, summa cum laude.
- University of Maryland, College Park.
Honours and awards
- 2012 - University of Maryland Distinguished Dissertation Award
- 2011 - Ann G. Wylie Dissertation Fellowship
- 2011 - International Conference Student Support Award
- 2010 - Rovereto Workshop on Cognition and Evolution Travel Grant
- 2009 - Janet W. Johnson Student Grant for Travel and Professional Development
- 2009 - Society for Research on Child Development Student Travel Award
- 2008 - Janet W. Johnson Summer Fellowship for the Study of Developmental Psychology
- 2008 - Goldhaber Travel Grant
- 2008 - Graduate Student Award to the International Conference on Infant Studies
- 2006-08 - Psychology Department Block Fellowship
- 2002-06 - Presidential Scholarship at Illinois State University
- 2005 - Robert G. Bone Scholarship
- 2002-06 - Presidential Scholarship at Illinois State University.
- Society for Research in Child Development
- International Congress on Infant Studies
- Cognitive Development Society.
- 2015-2016 - Lecturer, University of St Andrews, School of Psychology and Neuroscience
- 2011-2014 - Postdoctoral Researcher, Radboud University Nijmegen.
I teach in the second year Developmental Psychology (PS2011) module. I also supervise student projects and personal tutees.
I have previously taught or TA’d for Developmental Research Methods, Cognitive Development, Statistics, Cognitive Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Cross-Cultural Psychology.
From learning to tie one’s shoes to perfecting the art of tango, observing and understanding others’ actions is critical to human success throughout development. Understanding what other people are doing when they act is foundational to the development of language, cognition, and culture, and it is essential to seamlessly interacting in the social world.
In my research, I recruit diverse methodological techniques and innovative paradigms in order to examine a central question in social-cognitive development: How do infants and young children come to learn about and from others' actions? Although action understanding is essential throughout human development, studying its origins is especially important because it allows us to examine the interplay between inborn abilities and formative experiences.
I began by examining mechanisms underlying the origins of intention understanding (see, for example, Gerson & Woodward, 2013, 2014). That is, I investigated how young infants develop an understanding of the goals underlying others’ actions and, in particular, how their own experience producing actions contributes to this understanding. Building on this work, I have since conducted research addressing how infants come to understand, copy, and predict actions that they have never previously performed themselves (e.g., Gerson & Woodward, 2012, 2013). In this work, I emphasise the role comparison (i.e., analogy) processes play in the generalisation of action understanding. I hypothesise that comparing familiar and novel actions helps infants and children understand the goals of novel actions (Gerson, 2014; Gerson & Woodward, 2009; Woodward & Gerson, 2014). For example, if I had never seen someone using an electric mixer to stir batter, but I had previously stirred batter with a spoon, I could understand the goal of the person using the electric mixer via comparison to my previous experience sitrring with a spoon.
In ongoing research, I am exploring the neural correlates of action understanding using both electroencephalography (EEG; Gerson et al., 2015; Meyer, Gerson, et al., in preparation; Monroy, Gerson, et al., in preparation; Ni Choisdealbha, Gerson, et al., in preparation) and functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS; Stapel, J., Gerson, et al., in preparation).
Across my work, I use a variety of behavioural and neuroimaging methods to address one common theme: how infants and young children come to understand and interact with other humans. When we learn to tie our shoes, we learn more than just the mechanics of the action. We also learn about the goal of our sister’s action when she ties her shoes and, via comparison, the goal of our mother when she ties a bow in our sister’s hair. Understanding the goals underlying these basic actions is an important foundation for social, cognitive, and cultural development.
- 2015 - Royal Society Research Grant (£15,000).
If you are interested in applying for a PhD, or for further information regarding my postgraduate research, please contact me directly, or submit a formal application.