2018 William James Fellow

Barbara Landau

Johns Hopkins University

The overarching theoretical goal of Barbara Landau’s work has been to determine how experiential and genetic variation interacts with developmental process in promoting and/or limiting the development of spatial cognition and language. Landau studies spatial cognition and spatial language in normally developing and congenitally blind children and children with Williams syndrome. She has produced groundbreaking findings showing that spatial concepts and the language expressing them can develop normally, even with severe early visual deprivation. She has also proposed an important theory for how spatial representation and language may develop atypically, involving the differential maturation rates of dorsal and ventral streams in the brain.

Landau’s research began by demonstrating intact language acquisition in congenitally blind infants, including their use of visuospatial words such as look and see. She also demonstrated geometric representation and spatial reasoning in blind infants, who can navigate untraveled routes in a novel spatial environment. On the basis of these findings, Landau and her colleagues have developed novel theories of the development of spatial organization and the acquisition of the abstract vocabulary of a language despite visual deprivation. She has also introduced an important and innovative theory of atypical development involving the differential maturation of the dorsal and ventral streams in the human brain. This hypothesis provides a novel explanation of the abilities and disabilities in Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder with an unusual pattern of cognition that spares language but profoundly impairs spatial cognition.

Landau is the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins University. She is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Cognitive Science Society.