GW Assistant Professor of Speech and Hearing Science Francys Subiaul’s academic interest began with Fantasia when he was 4 years old. Like so many children, he was captivated by the dinosaurs in the classic film and asked his mother where they had come from and why they had disappeared. Her explanation of the origin of life and the evolution of creatures led to Subiaul’s lifelong fascination with the development and evolution of animals, in general, and humans, in particular.
Born in Cuba, Subiaul came to the United States at age 7 and grew up in Miami. He graduated with a double major in psychology and biological anthropology from Boston University in 1999. Subiaul then headed to Columbia University, where he completed master’s and doctorate degrees in anthropology. Upon graduation, he moved to Louisiana to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Louisiana, where his research focused on the differences and similarities between chimpanzees’ and human children’s social intelligence. In 2006, Subiaul joined GW’s Speech and Hearing Science Department.
Subiaul recently was awarded a National Science Foundation Career Award for his research proposal “The Evolution of Cultural Learning.” The five-year, $440,870 award will fund several initiatives: Subiaul’s research on the social learning of primates and children; the Ape Mind Initiative; a program at the National Zoo that will enable GW undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students, as well as Anacostia High School students, to study the zoo’s gorillas and orangutans; and a yearly lecture by a great ape expert from the zoo’s Think Tank, in addition to daily presentations by research scientists. Subiaul says the grant provides a unique opportunity to research social intelligence in great apes—a rare population—while providing public outreach and education.
Subiaul’s research focuses on how primates and children learn from others and their surroundings, and whether they are able to learn new behaviors through observation or through trial and error. “We are constantly consuming information from people around us,” says Subiaul. “When we see strangers interacting, we derive rules about their character and infer whether they are kind or mean, knowledgeable or ignorant, all by observation—often effortlessly and automatically. For me, a fundamental question is what mental mechanisms allow us to do that? It’s a question that gets at the heart of what makes humans human.”
At GW’s Social Cognition Laboratory, Subiaul studies “cognitive imitation,” a type of observational learning that involves copying abstract rules. Subiaul tests this kind of learning by asking children to touch pictures on a computer screen in a specific order. Because the pictures are arbitrary, Subiaul says the children have to discover the order by trial and error or by copying the responses of a knowledgeable “model.” This exercise gives Subiaul insights into how individuals learn and copy abstract rules by observation. “By identifying what and how children learn from others, we can better understand what distinguishes humans from other primate ‘social learners,’” he says.
Subiaul also seeks to better understand how special human populations, such as children with autism, learn from others. He says autistic children have difficulty with communication and social interaction. By presenting these children with different types of “rules” that they must copy from a model, Subiaul explores whether they have a specific difficulty copying serial rules—first, second, third—or planning and executing actions learned from observation.
By establishing patterns of performance on these tasks, Subiaul hopes to predict academic performance and behavioral and language problems. “By better understanding what underlies the social learning problems in children with autism, we may be able to create better clinical and educational programs for them,” he says.
At the zoo, touch-sensitive computer screens also will be used to test the social learning skills of primates, who will be given the same tasks as the children. Subiaul says the results can illuminate the differences between how human and non-human apes learn and copy different types of rules. “Young children are capable of learning and copying these different types of information,” he says. “It is unknown whether ape imitation is as versatile and whether species’ differences in performance predict the known differences between humans and other apes.”
Research is Subiaul’s passion. “Studying human and primate cognition gives us a unique insight into what makes us different from other animals,” he says, “but also what makes us like other animals and part of the animal kingdom.”
-- By Julia Parmley; originally published in By George!, June 2008