Is there one general-purpose learning system in our brains that adapts to all evidence that we encounter during our lives, or are there a large number of specialized modules that have evolved for dealing with many specific learning contexts?
The answer appears to be neither of these, but instead a small number of very flexible 'core functions' that prepare us to contend with various kinds of environmental processes. The evidence comes from comparative studies of human infants, adult non-human primates, and children and adults across many human cultures (see Kinzler and Spelke, 2007 for a review).
The proposed core systems are quite sensible, considering the sensorimotor information processing demands that bear upon primate survival. The proposed systems appear to be adapted for learning about, 1) inanimate objects, 2) animate creatures or 'agents', 3) sets of countable things, and 4) spatial geometry.
Inanimate objects are treated in terms of cohesion (their parts stick together), continuity (they move along smooth, continuous paths), and contact (they can bonk into each other and influence each others' motion).
Animate creatures or 'agents' are treated as behaving in goal-directed, efficient ways, including interactions with others that are likely to be contingent on and reciprocal to the behaviors of the other.
Sets and number appear to be treated according to three main principles: imprecision that increases with number, invariance to what is being counted (visual, tactile, auditory percepts), and an arithmetic sense of addition and subtraction.
Scene geometry is treated in terms of distance, angle or direction, and spatial extension, regardless of other properties like color or odor.
A fifth core knowledge system is hypothesized that has to do with social interactions and identification of in-group and out-group status.
If this model is correct, a reasonable question would be, can we learn to understand phenomena that cannot be learned only by metaphorical extension from these primitives?
The author's affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE's concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions or viewpoints expressed by the author.