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Annette Karmiloff-Smith

from the BBC programme The Life Scientific, 22 January 2013.[1]

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Annette Karmiloff-Smith FMedSci is a professorial research fellow at the Developmental Neurocognition Lab at Birkbeck, University of London. Before moving to Birbeck, she was Head of the Neurocognitive Development Unit at Institute of Child Health, University College, London. She is an expert in developmental disorders, with a particular interest in Williams syndrome.

Professor Karmiloff-Smith argues against[2] approaches that take a modality-specific approach to developmental disorders - approaches that state, for example, that autism arises because of a failure of the "theory of mind" module,[3] or that children with specific language impairment lack a genetically determined "language module".[4]

Karmiloff-Smith has argued[2] that these approaches assume a "mosaic-like" approach to cognitive development - according to which different systems within the brain develop separately from each other, based purely on information coded in the genes. The real picture of development is, she argues, much more complicated (see Interactive Specialization). Development comes about as a result of back-propagating interactions between gene, brain, behavior, and the environment;[5] "modules" (those parts of the brain that are, for example, specialized at processing language) appear relatively late in development.[6] Since developmental disorders arise from problems during development (as opposed to damage to a mature system) it follows that we should expect to find performance deficits that are not linked to one particular domain, but rather spread across a whole range of different performance impairments.

Karmiloff-Smith has supported her theories by her research work into Williams syndrome. This rare syndrome was originally thought to manifest itself as abnormally low IQ, accompanied by "normal" ability to process social cues. In a series of papers (e.g.[7]), Karmiloff-Smith and colleagues have discovered that impairments in Williams syndrome are far more widespread than had previously been appreciated. Her theories have been further supported by work in other fields. For example, autistic children have been found to be impaired not just at Theory of Mind but also at a variety of tasks including motion perception, visual search and multi-tasking (e.g.[8]), a finding that domain-specific theories have difficulty accounting for.

Karmiloff-Smith has authored a number of books and academic articles, most notably Beyond Modularity[6] in 1992 and Rethinking Innateness[9] with Jeffrey Elman, Mark Johnson, Elizabeth Bates, Domenico Parisi, and Kim Plunkett in 1996.


  1. "Annette Karmiloff-Smith". The Life Scientific. 22 January 2013. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 18 January 2014. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Karmiloff-Smith A. (1998). "Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders". Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2 (10): 389–398. PMID 21227254. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(98)01230-3. 
  3. Williams J.H.G., Whiten A., Suddendorf T., Perrett D.I. (2001). "Imitation, mirror neurons and autism". Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 25 (4): 287–295. PMID 11445135. doi:10.1016/S0149-7634(01)00014-8. 
  4. Rice M.L., Wexler K. (1996). "Toward tense as a clinical marker of specific language impairment in English-speaking children". Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 39 (6): 1239–1257. doi:10.1044/jshr.3906.1239. 
  5. Gottlieb, G., Lickliter, R. (2007). "FProbabilistic epigenesis". Developmental Science 10 (1): 1–11. PMID 17181692. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00556.x. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1996). Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-61114-7. 
  7. Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2007). "Williams syndrome". Curr Biol. 17 (24): R1035–R1036. PMID 18088580. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.09.037. 
  8. Elsabbagh M., Johnson M.H. (2007). "Infancy and autism: progress, prospects, and challenges". Progress in Brain Research. Progress in Brain Research 164: 355–383. ISBN 978-0-444-53016-5. PMID 17920442. doi:10.1016/S0079-6123(07)64020-5. 
  9. Elman, Jeffrey (1996). Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-55030-X. 

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