Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Author's Response
Steven R. Quartz & Terrence J. Sejnowski (1997). The neural basis of cognitive development: A constructivist manifesto. BBS 20:537–596

Constraining constructivism: Cortical and sub-cortical constraints on learning in development

Steven Quartz a1 and Terrence Sejnowski a2
a1 Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena CA 91125 [email protected]
a2 Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Salk Institute, Department of Biology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla CA [email protected]


It is becoming increasingly clear that acquiring cognitive skills is feasible only with significant developmental constraints. However, recent research provides the strongest evidence to date for constructivist development. Here, we examine how these two apparently conflicting perspectives may be reconciled. Specifically, we suggest that subcortical and cortical structures possess divergent developmental strategies, with many subcortical structures satisfying Fodor's criteria for modularity. These structures constitute an early behavioral system that guides the construction of later emerging cortical structures, for which there is little evidence for modularity. Thus, we focus on how the dynamic time course of development itself implicitly constrains the emergence of cortical representations, reducing the requirement for built-in encodings of knowledge in cortical circuits, as on the traditional nativist conception.