Sami Yousif


I am a graduate student at Yale University, where I work primarily in the Cognition and Development Lab with Frank Keil. I am most interested in how we perceive, interact with, and represent the space around us. This could mean understanding how we navigate through space (e.g., how it is that we can effortlessly navigate to work each morning), how we see space (e.g., why are there so many visual illusions of space, and what do those tell us about how the mind works?), or how we think about space (e.g., what do our mental maps look like, and how do they differ from reality?). My work mostly focuses on adult cognition, but I also study children and the origins of these foundational spatial processes.

Beyond my core interest in spatial perception and cognition, I have also worked on numerous other related topics, including mental representations of shapes, various aspects of numerical cognition, and visual memorability. And more recently, I have become obsessed with explanation as a cognitive process, and the many ways that our intuitions about and understandings of explanations shape how we interact with our information-rich world.


Recent Projects


The 'Additive-Area Heuristic'

How do you estimate how much 'stuff' you see? For example, how do you judge which of two containers is greater in volume? In this line of work, we show that (1) observers are subject to robust, predictable illusions of area, and (2) these illusions can be explained by a simple tendency to add the dimensions of space together rather tha multiply them (i.e., length plus width instead of length times width). Here, we document how this illusion works, and how it may impact related fields of study.

The Shape of Space

What is the format of spatial representation? For example, what does your mind represent when you consider how to travel to and from work each day? In this line of work, we show (1) that observers exhibit large spatial distortions even in maximally simple spatial tasks and (2) that the distortions people exhibit may be explained by disorted polar representations (as opposed to Cartesian representations).

Understanding 'Why'

Why do we like the kinds of explanations that we do? Part of the answer may have to do with the word 'why' itself. The word 'why' is ambiguous, and when you ask a why question, you could be asking one of several specific questions. In this work, we investigate how people understand 'why' questions -- and how this affects our understanding of explanation preferences more broadly.