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Dedre Gentner Awarded Rumelhart Prize in Cognitive Science

Honor recognizes contributions to theoretical foundations of human cognition

  • Prize considered to be the most important award in the cognitive science field
  • Gentner has made significant contributions to the study of cognition and language
  • “Her work has advanced our understanding of analogical reasoning, metaphor, language learning and early childhood development.”

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Dedre Gentner, the Alice Gabrielle Twight Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy, is the 16th recipient of the David E. Rumelhart Prize.

Established only 14 years ago, the David E. Rumelhart Prize is considered to be the most important award in the cognitive science field. The prize is awarded annually to an individual making a significant contemporary contribution to the theoretical foundations of human cognition. The prize consists of a hand-crafted, custom bronze medal, a certificate, a citation of the awardee’s contribution and a monetary award of $100,000.

The announcement of the award was made July 24 during the annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society in Pasadena, California. Gentner will receive the award and give a prize lecture at next year’s annual meeting in Philadelphia.

“Dedre Gentner’s work tackles some of the most challenging and foundational topics in human cognition, including mental representation, reasoning, language and learning,” said Tania Lombrozo, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Rumelhart Prize selection committee. “Her approach has been systematic and multidisciplinary, informed by ideas across the cognitive sciences, including psychology, computer science and linguistics.”

Lombrozo added that Gentner’s contributions have been far-reaching.

“Her work has advanced our understanding of analogical reasoning, metaphor, language learning and early childhood development, to name just a few,” Lombrozo said.

Gentner has influenced the field not only through her prolific experimental work with both children and adults, but also through her general theory of analogical reasoning, called Structure-Mapping Theory.

A central insight of Structure-Mapping Theory is that humans, unlike most other species, can notice common relations across situations, even when the concrete objects involved in the situations are totally different. Many great discoveries in science involve this kind of match -- for example, (Ernest) Rutherford’s analogy between the atom and the solar system or (Nicolas Léonard Sadi) Carnot’s analogy between heat flow and water flow. But this process is not limited to great scientific discoveries. Gentner’s research has revealed that structure-mapping is a central process in human learning and reasoning -- in learning mathematics, in children’s language learning and even in everyday reasoning from one example to another.

Structure-Mapping Theory formalizes the process people use in comparing two situations. It states that when people compare two things, they align the relational structures of the two domains. The properties of objects in the domains need not match, and deeply nested relational structures are favored over independent relations. In collaboration with Kenneth Forbus and Brian Falkenhainer, this theory was implemented in the Structure-Mapping Engine (SME), which both formalized the process model and offered a computationally tractable algorithm for carrying out the process of mapping structures and drawing inferences. 

The Rumelhart Prize is funded by the Robert J. Glushko and Pamela Samuelson Foundation.  The selection is made by a committee of distinguished researchers who come from all parts of cognitive science.

Serving as a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, and later Stanford University, David E. Rumelhart made many contributions to the formal analysis of human cognition, working primarily within the frameworks of mathematical psychology, symbolic artificial intelligence and parallel distributed processing. Rumelhart articulated a clear view of what cognitive science, the discipline, is or ought to be. He maintained that for cognitive science to be a science, it would have to have formal theories -- and he often pointed to linguistic theories, as well as to mathematical and computational models, as examples of what he had in mind. He died in 2011.

“I’m deeply honored to receive the David E. Rumelhart Award and to join the illustrious company of prior recipients,” said Gentner, also director of the Cognitive Science Program at Northwestern. “This award is doubly meaningful in being named for David Rumelhart, whose ideas have been of major importance in my work.”

A complete list of recipients can be found on the David E. Rumelhart Prize website.

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