Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science awarded to Stanislas Dehaene

27 January 2011

The topic

Stanislas Dehaene has shown that the ability to estimate amounts - an innate 'number sense' that human beings have in common with various other species - forms the basis for our mathematical (abstract reasoning) and arithmetic (calculation) abilities. The latter ability does, however, require a well-developed system of symbols - a language system. Evidence for this duality has been found not only in scientific experiments but also in anthropological research. One example is the language of the Amazonian Mundurukú tribe, which has words for numbers only up to five. The Mundurukú are not able to perform precise calculations with larger numbers, but they can approximate and compare larger amounts.

Dehaene has also conducted important research into reading, the ultimate culturally-determined - and not inborn - skill. He has devised ingenious methods for showing that when we read, we access a complex network in the brain that recognises increasingly larger fragments of words without our being aware of it.

These and other findings have led Dehaene to develop the influential 'global workspace' theory of human consciousness, which proposes that our brain uses two different mechanisms in tandem to achieve consciousness.

The laureate

Stanislas Dehaene was born in Roubaix, France, in 1965 and studied applied mathematics and information science in Paris (1985). In 1989 he obtained his PhD in the cognitive sciences. He became the youngest member of the French Academy of Science in 2005 and in the same year was elected to the chair in Experimental Cognitive Psychology at the prestigious Collège de France. Dehaene is also the Research Director of the Cognitive Neuro-imaging Unit at INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. His previous awards include the Louis D. Prize of the Institut de France and the Gold Medal of the Association Arts-Sciences-Lettres.

Dehaene's work has been recognised well beyond his own discipline. His book The Number Sense is a success both within and outside the scientific community. Dehaene's research has resulted in an interactive computer program that helps children with a congenital numeracy problem (dyscalculia) to understand numbers.

Examples of key publications

  • Dehaene, S., The number sense: How the mind creates mathematics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997
  • Dehaene, S., Spelke, E., Pinel, P, Stanescu, R., Tsivkin, S., Sources of mathematical thinking: Behavioral and brain-imaging evidence. In: Science, 1999; 284: 970-974
  • Dehaene, S., Naccache, L., Cohen, L., Bihan, D.L., Mangin, J.F., Poline, J.B., Rivière, D., Cerebral mechanisms of word masking and unconscious repetition priming. In: Nature Neuroscience, 2001; 4: 752-758
  • Pica, P., Lemer, C., Izard, V., Dehaene, S., Exact and approximate arithmetic in an Amazonian indigene group. In: Science 2004; 306: 499-503
  • Dehaene-Lambertz, G., Hertz-Pannier, L., Dubois, J., Meriaux, S., Roche, A., Sigman, M., Dehaene, S., Functional organization of perisylvian activation during presentation of sentences in preverbal infants. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 2006; 103: 14240-14245.

The prize

Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science was established in 2006. It is the first major international prize in the relatively new, broad field of cognitive science, which explores how human beings and animals acquire, process and apply knowledge. Ms C.L. de Carvalho-Heineken, who succeeded her father Alfred (Freddy) Heineken as the chairperson of the Alfred Heineken Fondsen Foundation after his death in 2002, agreed to establish this sixth Heineken Prize because of her father's lifelong interest in the workings of the human brain. American psychologist John R. Anderson was the first recipient of this important prize in 2006. The jury was chaired by Jacqueline Meulman.

The presentation ceremony

The Heineken Prizes are presented every other year during an extraordinary meeting of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. This year the meeting will be held on Thursday 2 October at the Beurs van Berlage Building in Amsterdam.