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A substantial body of experimental evidence has demonstrated that labels have an impact on infant categorization processes. Yet little is known regarding the nature of the mechanisms by which this effect is achieved. We distinguish between two competing accounts: supervised name-based categorization and unsupervised feature-based categorization. We describe a neurocomputational model of infant visual categorization, based on self-organizing maps, that implements the unsupervised feature-based approach. The model successfully reproduces experiments demonstrating the impact of labeling on infant visual categorization reported in Plunkett, Hu, and Cohen (2008). It mimics infant behavior in both the familiarization and testing phases of the procedure, using a training regime that involves only single presentations of each stimulus and using just 24 participant networks per experiment. The model predicts that the observed behavior in infants is due to a transient form of learning that might lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized categorical structure and that the impact of labels on categorization is influenced by the perceived similarity and the sequence in which the objects are presented. The results suggest that early in development, say before 12 months old, labels need not act as invitations to form categories nor highlight the commonalities between objects, but they may play a more mundane but nevertheless powerful role as additional features that are processed in the same fashion as other features that characterize objects and object categories.

Original publication




Journal article


Cogn Sci

Publication Date





709 - 738