Her thesis studied attachment and emotional reactions in babies. She did her Doctor of Philosophy at Cornell with developmental psychologist Eleanor Gibson, from whom she learned how to design experiments on young children.
She has suggested that human beings have a large array of innate mental abilities. In recent years, she had an important role in the debate on cognitive differences between men and women. Spelke did her undergraduate studies at Radcliffe College with the child psychologist Jerome Kagan.
She realized that she needed to have an idea of what babies really understood, and so began her lifelong interest in the cognitive aspect of child psychology.
Her first academic post was at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked for nine years. Thereafter she moved first to Cornell, and then to Massachusetts Institute of Technology"s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
She has been a professor at Harvard since 2001. The kind of experiments carried out at the Laboratory of Developmental Studies try to infer the cognitive abilities of babies by using the method of preferential looking, developed by Robert Fantz.
This consists of presenting babies with different images and deducing which one is more appealing to them by the length of time their attention fixes on them.
Foreign example, researchers may repeatedly show a baby an image with a certain number of objects. Once the baby is habituated, they present a second image with more or fewer objects. If the baby looks at the new image for a longer time, the researchers may infer that the baby can distinguish different quantities.
Through an array of similar experiments, Spelke interpreted her evidence to suggest that babies have a set of highly sophisticated, innate mental skills.
This provides an alternative to the hypothesis originated by William James that babies are born with no distinctive cognitive abilities but acquire them all through education and experience (see Principles of Psychology, 1890). In 2005, Lawrence Summers, then Harvard president, speculated over the preponderance of men over women in high-end science and engineering positions.
He surmised that a statistical difference in the variance of innate abilities among male and female populations (male variance tends to be higher, resulting in more extremes) could play a role. His words immediately sparked a heated debate.
Spelke was among the strongest critics of Lawrence Summers and in April 2005 faced Steven Pinker in an open debate over the issue.
She declared that her own experiments revealed no difference between the mental capacities of males and females.
Fellow American Psychological Society, Society Experimental Psychologists. Member Cognitive Neurosci. Society, Psychonomic Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Married Elliott M. Blass, October 23,1988. Children: Mae Bridget, Joseph Alan.