Highlighting Faculty Member Aaron Blaisdell


Date published: 03/01/19

Dr. Blaisdell is interested in the animal mind. He and his lab use behavioral procedures to explore the interaction between bottom-up associative learning processes and top-down rational decision making processes. Particular interests include spatial cognition, causal reasoning, rule learning, and mental imagery.


His research integrates a variety of approaches—ranging from habituation, sensitization, Pavlovian conditioning, and operant learning, with a diverse collection of species, including rats, mice, pigeons, people, and even hermit crabs.

A theme of Dr. Blaisdell’s research is that bottom-up processes such as associative learning builds the architecture of knowledge upon which top-down cognitive processes abstract rules and derive inferences. For example, rats that observe that light is a common-cause of a tone and food diagnostically infer that food is present when they subsequently hear the tone, but not if they themselves had caused the tone by pressing a lever. Thus, they distinguish effects of their own agency from effects produced by other causes. Moreover, rats act is if they understand that hidden causes, such as a light obscured by an opaque cover, can be present and exert their effects even when not observed, a process that is mediated by the hippocampus.

At the other end of the spectrum of cognitive processes, Dr. Blaisdell and his students have recently modified the ancient Law of Effect, a bottom-up trial-and-error processes of instrumental learning proposed by Edward Thorndike in 1898 under the tutelage of William James. The modifications incorporate our understanding of how inhibitory processes act to create response competition.

Dr. Blaisdell has been at the forefront of the field of Ancestral Health. Ancestral Health analyzes human health and disease through the lens of evolutionary mismatch. Dr. Blaisdell founded the Ancestral Health Society, which convenes an annual symposium, and the Journal of Evolution and Health of which he is Editor-in-Chief.

Dr. Blaisdell’s research has been supported by NIMH, NINDS, and NSF. His Ph.D. student Cindy Fast was the 2017 recipient of the Gold Medal of the 2014 – 2017 James McKeen Cattell Award for “Outstanding Dissertation in Psychology.”

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