Ken McRae named as a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society

December 18, 2020

Ken McRae, Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society

Ken McRae, Professor in the Department of Psychology, has been named as a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society. McRae is also the Associate Dean of Research for the Faculty of Social Science.

Cognitive Science, McRae said, brings together multiple disciplines, including Psychology, Artificial intelligence, Linguistics, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Education.

“My research has been a mixture of Cognitive Psychology, Computational Modelling (part of AI), Linguistics, and Cognitive Neuroscience, with some influence from Philosophy,” said McRae. “I have always considered the CSS as kind of my home society.”

Through his research on language comprehension, McRae has focused on how people understand sentences, people’s knowledge of common events in the world, and how the components of language comprehension interact with each other.

McRae challenges the dominant approach and idea of language comprehension that a word’s meanings are stored in the mind, and accessed or activated when you hear or read a word.

“We instead have explored the idea that meaning is computed or constructed as people hear or read language, based on multiple aspects of their past experience,” he said. “The idea is that instead of words having meaning, words are cues to meaning.”

The ways in which words cue meaning vary greatly depending on context, including the words before it, who you are talking to, and even what you are doing at the time.

“Determining meaning can be thought of as moving through a space that is determined by a system that rapidly brings together all of the information that is available, and at the same time is implicitly predicting what comes next,” said McRae.

While McRae said much of his research has focused on basic-science questions, others have expanded upon his work to develop treatments, including Verb Network Strengthening Treatment (VNEST), a treatment for Aphasia.

In 2018, McRae received NSERC funding to continue his research in event knowledge and language comprehension. With that funding, he has worked on a number of projects, including a journal article authored with Jeff Elman, and published in Psychological Review that concludes that knowledge of the temporal structure of events in the human mind emerges as a consequence of prediction-based learning.

He is also working with Claudia Morales, a M.Sc. student, investigating how people think about potential events in their future, and with Kara Hanna (Ph.D. student), Ryan Stevenson, and Kevin Brown, investigating knowledge of common events in individuals with Autism.

“It’s important to note that, although I was named as a Fellow, I have only one sole-authored publication,” he said. “It's really about the great trainees and colleagues that I've been lucky enough to work with.”

For the past five years, McRae has been Associate Dean of Research for the Faculty of Social Science. His term comes to an end at the end of December. This position has given him a unique perspective on the award. “Over the past 5 years as ADR, I've worked on a large number of awards for our faculty members. It's pretty nice to get one myself right at the end of my term as ADR,” said McRae.

McRae said his term as ADR has given him a chance to meet and get to know many more people in Social Science than he had in his previous 20 years at Western.

“It's been extremely fun to learn about so many people's really cool and great research,” said McRae. “It's been wonderful working with all of the great people in FSS, and watching so many people be so successful.”

“And of course, I have to thank particularly (research officers) Pankhuri (Malik) and Meli (Limani) who really did the vast majority of the real work during the past five years.”