Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Manuel Bohn

Leuphana University Lüneburg

Research Focus

Manuel Bohn is a developmental psychologist interested in the psychological foundations of human communication. His current research focuses on how children’s everyday experiences relate to their communicative and cognitive development. To address this question, he seeks to integrate tools developed in Computer Science with methods from Developmental Psychology. For a broader theoretical perspective, he studies the communicative and cognitive abilities of our closest living relatives, the great apes. His goal is to understand the shared and unique aspects of human cognition that allow children to learn language and become healthy and functioning members of the society they grow up in.

My plans for the fellowship period

One of the central quests in psychology has been to find out how children’s cognition is shaped by their everyday experiences. How do experiences influence how the child represents and reasons about the world? How do experiences differ between cultures – and how does cognitive development? Which experiences should be targeted in an intervention to support cognitive development? Despite being a critical puzzle, the link between everyday experiences and cognitive development is vastly understudied. 

During my fellowship, I want to build an interdisciplinary team to study children’s everyday experiences at scale. To capture the full diversity of everyday experience, we want to take the child’s perspective on the world: we developed a child-friendly vest that holds a small camera that children can wear throughout the day. This way we can record long stretches of children’s naturalistic everyday experiences in different cultural settings (southern Africa and northern Europe).

To process these recordings, we want to leverage recent developments in Computer Science – e.g., Machine Learning and Computer Vision. These methods help us to automatically detect objects, people, and events and thereby quantify the full range of children’s everyday experiences. Eventually, we hope to link diversity in experience to diversity in cognitive development.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

My team and I want to develop new methods that allow us to identify factors in children’s lives that have a positive effect on their development. In particular, we want to contribute to finding out which aspects of everyday social interaction positively influence children’s cognitive development. 

We work under the assumption that there is not just “one way” in which social interaction may relate to cognitive development: we think that developmental pathways may differ across cultures. Understanding the complexity and diversity of everyday experience is crucial for policymaking and the design of intervention studies and our work may make an important contribution to that. 

Furthermore, I think our work can also have an indirect positive effect on children’s lives. The methods we will provide to the research community may lead more researchers to study related questions, for example: what constitutes a stimulating physical environment? More research on different aspects of children’s everyday experiences will produce more insights into how to positively intervene in children’s lives.