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About Us

The Scaffolding of Cognition team is led by Dr. Cameron Ellis and housed in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University.

We use methods from neuroscience and cognitive science to assess the basic building blocks of the developing mind. One prominent approach we use is fMRI with awake behaving infants. This provides us unprecedented ways to access the cognitive mechanisms underlying the infant mind.

Beyond fMRI, our team uses behavioral testing methods (e.g., eye tracking, iPad tasks, and computer-based tasks) to study cognition in both developmental and adult samples. Our studies emphasize naturalistic stimuli to more closely approximate cognition ‘in the wild’.


At its best, science can illuminate the human condition and our place in the world, solve problems, and be fun. The Scaffolding of Cognition team hopes to enact all of those positive aspects of science. However, we also acknowledge that science — and its pursuit within the academy — still today fails to live up to its potential. We aim for our science to be inclusive of minoritized communities and prioritize outreach and education. Moreover, we actively seek to make our team diverse and welcoming. Failing to do so is both immoral, in that people who would thrive if given the opportunity to succeed are unfairly excluded, and bad for our science, in that many of the best and brightest minds — who could bring diverse and valuable perspectives to science — are overlooked. Finally, our team embraces open science practices that enhance the integrity of our research. This means that the tools we develop and the data we collect are open and available to all. Where possible, our experiments will be pre-registered, including all display code and analyses.

For a more thorough reading of our team’s approach, consider reading our lab manual.

Want to join the team? Visit the People page to learn about what roles we are recruiting for.

Research Topics

Learn more about what we do by clicking on the links below.


Until infants can walk or crawl, the only way for them to explore their world on their terms is with their attention. Infants look at objects that interest them, they look in locations where they expect interesting things to happen, and they look longer at locations where surprising things occurred. These capacities for attention are important, but our understanding of how they are controlled in the brain is limited. In particular, it is unclear whether the neural architecture of infant attention resembles the adult attention system. In my work, I showed that infants can robustly deploy attention and that this attention recruits similar, but not identical, neural systems in adults. In particular, we found evidence that frontal cortex is critical for supporting the reallocation of attention, providing evidence against the dogma that the frontal cortex is not functional or behaviorally-relevant in infancy. Additionally, the non-overlap in recruited brain regions between infants and adults hints at the possibility that attention in infancy is supported by different component processes than adult attention.

Research highlights:

Ellis, C. T., Skalaban, L. J., Yates, T. S., & Turk-Browne. N. B. (2021). Attention recruits frontal cortex in human infants. Proceedings of the National Academia of Sciences, 118 (12)e2021474118. PaperCodeData


Infancy is the time in our lives when we learn the most, including language, motor skills, and social relationships; yet, as adults, we remember none of the experiences that led to this learning. How is it possible that infants can learn without remembering? In adults, the hippocampus mediates learning by storing new information and slowly consolidating that information into cortex. However, how the infant brain mediates learning is less clear since infants appear to have limited memory of events and experiences, and the hippocampus has a protracted development into adolescence. In my research, I have investigated how the infant brain supports learning and memory. Statistical learning, the ability to extract regularities across episodes, is one type of learning I have focused on because it is thought to be foundational to learning during infancy (e.g., language acquisition). I showed that the infant hippocampus is involved in statistical learning, providing the first evidence that this region is functional in human infants as young as four months.

Research highlights:

Ellis, C. T., Skalaban, L. J., Yates, T. S., Bejjanki, V. R., Córdova, N. I., & Turk-Browne, N. B. (2021). Evidence of hippocampal learning in human infants. Current Biology, 31, 1-7 PaperCodeData


The world is abundantly complex, yet our visual system seamlessly and accurately determines what is in our environment. Dating back to William James, it has been assumed that this complexity is a hindrance that our visual system must overcome. In my research with adults, I showed that complexity could help perception by giving it a scaffolding upon which to incorporate incoming information. I have also pursued how the developing brain deals with complexity. I found that infants as young as five months have the hierarchical retinotopic organization of the mature adult visual system. This suggests that incoming visual information undergoes a cascade of transformations to extract features of differing complexity, even at a young age.

Research highlights:

Ellis, C. T.,Yates, T. S., Skalaban, L. J., Bejjanki, V. R., Arcaro, M. J., & Turk-Browne, N. B. (2021). Retinotopic organization of visual cortex in human infants. Neuron, 109, 1-11. PaperCodeData

Ellis, C. T., & Turk-Browne, N. B. (2019). Complexity can facilitate visual and auditory perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 45(9), 1271-1284. PaperData