I completed my PhD in psychology at UC Berkeley and postdoctoral research at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and am currently a postdoctoral researcher working with Mike Frank in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. I'm interested broadly in how humans abstract away from the sensory information they receive about the world to create, structure, and communicate higher-level representations. To better understand these processes, my research explores the nature of category systems across languages: how these semantic structures vary, evolve, and influence thought. In a complementary line of work, I examine the role of language and culture in children's developing conceptualizations of space and relations.

Professional Education

  • Doctor of Philosophy, University of California Berkeley (2016)
  • BA, University of California Berkeley, Psychology (2011)
  • BA, University of California Berkeley, Linguistics (2011)

All Publications

  • Do graded representations support abstract thought? CURRENT OPINION IN BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES Carstensen, A., Frank, M. C. 2021; 37: 90–97
  • Context shapes early diversity in abstract thought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Carstensen, A., Zhang, J., Heyman, G. D., Fu, G., Lee, K., Walker, C. M. 2019


    Early abstract reasoning has typically been characterized by a "relational shift," in which children initially focus on object features but increasingly come to interpret similarity in terms of structured relations. An alternative possibility is that this shift reflects a learned bias, rather than a typical waypoint along a universal developmental trajectory. If so, consistent differences in the focus on objects or relations in a child's learning environment could create distinct patterns of relational reasoning, influencing the type of hypotheses that are privileged and applied. Specifically, children in the United States may be subject to culture-specific influences that bias their reasoning toward objects, to the detriment of relations. In experiment 1, we examine relational reasoning in a population with less object-centric experience-3-y-olds in China-and find no evidence of the failures observed in the United States at the same age. A second experiment with younger and older toddlers in China (18 to 30 mo and 30 to 36 mo) establishes distinct developmental trajectories of relational reasoning across the two cultures, showing a linear trajectory in China, in contrast to the U-shaped trajectory that has been previously reported in the United States. In a third experiment, Chinese 3-y-olds exhibit a bias toward relational solutions in an ambiguous context, while those in the United States prefer object-based solutions. Together, these findings establish population-level differences in relational bias that predict the developmental trajectory of relational reasoning, challenging the generality of an initial object focus and suggesting a critical role for experience.

    View details for DOI 10.1073/pnas.1818365116

    View details for PubMedID 31235570