2014 William James Fellow Award

Nora S. Newcombe

Temple University

Nora S. Newcombe has made groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of spatial cognition — the mental visualization of two- and three-dimensional objects and their relations to each other. Making Space, a book she coauthored with APS William James Fellow Janellen Huttenlocher, fused classic theories of learned and innate spatial reasoning to create a neoconstructivist conceptualization of cognitive development. That approach benefited from the consistent and unusual degree to which Newcombe intertwined the study of developmental processes with the study of adult cognition, comparative cognition, and cognitive neuroscience.

Newcombe’s work has had large societal impact. Since 2006, she has led the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center (SILC), an initiative to explore spatial learning in an interdisciplinary framework. With SILC, Newcombe has brought spatial learning to the forefront of society’s understanding of human intellect and established the science of learning as a framework for translational impact on education and lifelong cognitive change.

Newcombe has also challenged gender stereotypes by emphasizing the malleability of spatial skills. Understanding this malleability, argues Newcombe, will ultimately be more rewarding than searching for the causes of gender differences in spatial skills.

Within the domains of memory and memory development, Newcombe integrated research from adult cognitive psychology and neuroscience to the exploration of implicit and explicit memory distinctions and differences between semantic and episodic memory. She has traced the emergence and trajectory of episodic and autobiographical memory and linked this trajectory to changes in spatial learning, with which episodic memory shares neural substrates.

Few researchers have spanned the breadth of areas addressed by Newcombe while simultaneously maintaining the attention to rigorous empirical method and the depth of theoretical development that have marked her career.