CIS graduate students are active in research, and win support from the program to attend conferences around the world. This past summer, Ph.D. students Alexandra Paxton and Ben St. Clair gave spoken presentations at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci) this year in Berlin. Here are some details about their research and conference experiences. These are just two experiences among dozens this summer by students who presented. All of their presentations at CogSci are listed here.

Alexandra Paxton

Alexandra Paxton, Ph.D. Student

You gave a talk at CogSci this summer on multimodal networks of interaction. What are these networks and why do you think people took interest?

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 12.19.56 PM“These networks are ways to visualize how different kinds of conversation – specifically, arguments versus friendly conversations – change the structure of interpersonal interaction. In this area of research, alignment (or synchrony) refers to the way in which individuals’ communication channels like speech or body movement become intertwined over time. Another way to look at these concepts is through multimodal alignment, exploring how various communication channels affect one another over time. The talk at CogSci presented visualizations of multimodal alignment during naturalistic affiliative and argumentative interactions as networks based on automated analyses of body movement and speech. Basically, our findings suggest that conflict decouples individuals’ movement and speech systems compared to friendly conversations, suggesting that conversation self-organizes and is sensitive to context.

I think that part of the reason for the interest in this topic is due to the fact that very few people are currently investigating how conflict quantitatively affects interpersonal interaction. By incorporating new conversational contexts into research on interaction, we can come to a better understanding of human communication and interaction in general – and possibly even help develop new ways of improving it.”

How does this approach challenge traditional perspectives?

“More traditional approaches to behavior and cognition tend to overlook the effects of other people on our own behavior and cognition. By focusing solely on the individual, however, this kind of traditional approach fails to capture our rich interconnectivity. Studies of individual participants has led and continues to lead us to important breakthroughs in understanding human cognition and behavior, but research on interacting individuals opens exciting new doors. We’re highly social creatures, and we can gain new insights about ourselves when we look past the individual in isolation and start to ask questions about how the individual affects the group (or dyad) and vice-versa.”

Read Alexandra’s paper here.

How did the CogSci program support your efforts developing and delivering this presentation at an international conference?

“The Cognitive and Information Sciences program at UC Merced is focused on helping graduate students pursue their own lines of research and create a strong foundation for our eventual careers. The preparation for the annual CogSci conference was no different. The faculty encouraged us to give practice presentations and gave valuable feedback, and grad students were funded with generous summer travel fellowships (thanks in part to the Glushko and Samuelson Foundation) to help defray the costs of international travel. The UC Merced faculty who were able to attend the conference with us not only supported us by attending our talks and poster sessions but also by helping foster connections with others in our field.”

Alexandra enjoys playing and volunteering in the community with local roller derby leagues, as featured in this APA gradPSYCH article. She also helps out around campus as a graduate student mentor in the Peer Mentor Program, which helps acclimate new students at UC Merced to the grad program. Alexandra’s research interests also partly derive from extensive work and volunteering with troubled youth, which she has continued for many years.


Ben St. Clair, Ph.D. Student

You gave a talk at CogSci this summer on the philosophical implications of polychronous groups. What are polychronous groups and why do you think people took interest? 

animation_figure“There is growing empirical and theoretical neuroscientific evidence that relevant information in the brain is encoded in spatiotemporal patterns of spikes called polychronous neuronal groups (PNGs) which emerge naturally out of any spiking neural network with variable axonal conductance delays. Essentially, they are the unique chain reaction of spikes that becomes triggered in response to stimuli, almost like a special firework that looks differently depending on the stimuli. People are interested in PNGs because they represent a fundamental dynamic of information in brain-like neural networks that has only recently been discovered, so there is a lot to learn–our theories and explanations of cognition need to be adapted to take them into account. At the Society for Complex Systems in Cognitive Science meeting in Berlin, my talk presented how the dynamic transition from one PNG-concept to the next appears discrete and not smoothly continuous as described by traditional perspectives. At CogSci, also in Berlin, my talk suggested how the temporally extended nature of PNGs implies that conceptual-level dynamics may only be coherent at coarse time scales, I introduced the notion of PNG trigger sets as a way to ground the meaning of PNG representations, and I discussed how PNGs support new solutions for compositionality.”

How does this approach challenge traditional perspectives?

“Traditional perspectives on the neural basis of mental representations viewed concepts as regions in a high dimensional vector space, where each dimension corresponds to the activity of a neuron, where activity is usually taken to be the instantaneous firing rate of the neuron. This characterization is challenged by the recognition of polychronous neuronal groups because the assumption that a neuron is described only by its firing rate makes it impossible to predict the polychronous dynamics that will naturally emerge in the system.”

Read Ben’s paper here.

How did the CogSci program support your efforts developing and delivering this presentation at an international conference?

“The perspectives and research I presented in Berlin this summer were heavily inspired and developed in close contact with the CIS graduate group and my committee: David Noelle (Advisor), Jeffrey Yoshimi, and Michael Spivey. My travel expenses to and from Berlin were covered by a fellowship provided through the Cognitive and Information Sciences graduate group.”

Ben is also active in local Merced culture and arts. For example, he is publisher, editor, and designer of a local kickstart poetry zine, TREE, now on its 5th issue, featuring poetry of residents Merced, California. His music, on piano and acoustic bass guitar, can be heard through the Nyx Records recordings of the Local Grind and Local Grind: Refill performances at Coffee Bandits. See the Merced Sun-Star Story. He is also the artist for J&R Tacos for the Fall ’13 Art Hop, where he’ll be showing a 3’x3′ artistic rendition of polychronization (see picture), among other paintings.