Background information on animal intelligence

Sign up to take part. A Nature Research Journal. There is evidence from behavioural studies that many of humans' mental powers are shared by other animals, including simple forms of learning, memory and categorization, and the elements of social, spatial and numerical cognition. Only against this background does it make sense to propose, as some have, that there is a distinct small set of mental powers that is unique to humans, including theory of mind see, for example, D.

Penn et al. Brain Sci. Contrary to what Bolhuis and Wynne are suggesting, careful analysis of the behaviours taken as evidence for theory of mind in species from chimpanzees to dogs to birds has led to a rethink of claims that were initially anthropomorphic. The authors suggest that relatedness among species is emphasized at the expense of convergently evolved cognitive similarities. On the contrary: apparently similar performances of distantly related species — as in tool-using, social cognition and teaching-like behaviour — are now increasingly being studied precisely because convergence is a recognized test-bed for functional hypotheses.

For example, the proposal that monkeys and apes have evolved exceptional social skills to navigate a particular kind of social group is tested with non-primate species that have complex social organization, such as hyenas, some birds and even fish. Comparison of the cognitive mechanisms underlying such functionally similar behaviours is an active area of research. Shettleworth Behav.

Hiding from ourselves

Processes 80 , —; Also, contributions from behavioral neuroscience are beginning to clarify the physiological substrate of some inferred mental process. Some researchers have made effective use of a Piagetian methodology, taking tasks which human children are known to master at different stages of development, and investigating which of them can be performed by particular species.

Others have been inspired by concerns for animal welfare and the management of domestic species: for example Temple Grandin has harnessed her unique expertise in animal welfare and the ethical treatment of farm livestock to highlight underlying similarities between humans and other animals.

Human and non-human animal cognition have much in common, and this is reflected in the research summarized below; most of the headings found here might also appear in an article on human cognition. Of course, research in the two also differs in important respects. Notably, much research with humans either studies or involves language, and much research with animals is related directly or indirectly to behaviors important to survival in natural settings.

Following are summaries of some of the major areas of research in animal cognition. Animals process information from eyes, ears, and other sensory organs to perceive the environment. Perceptual processes have been studied in many species, with results that are often similar to those in humans.

Equally interesting are those perceptual processes that differ from, or go beyond those found in humans, such as echolocation in bats and dolphins, motion detection by skin receptors in fish, and extraordinary visual acuity, motion sensitivity and ability to see ultraviolet light in some birds. Much of what is happening in the world at any moment is irrelevant to current behavior. Attention refers to mental processes that select relevant information, inhibit irrelevant information, and switch among these as the situation demands.

A large body of research has explored the way attention and expectation affect the behavior of non-human animals, and much of this work suggests that attention operates in birds, mammals and reptiles in much the same way that it does in humans. Animals trained to discriminate between two stimuli, say black versus white, can be said to attend to the "brightness dimension," but this says little about whether this dimension is selected in preference to others.

More enlightenment comes from experiments that allow the animal to choose from several alternatives. For example, several studies have shown that performance is better on, for example, a color discrimination e. The reverse effect happens after training on forms. Thus, the earlier learning appears to affect which dimension, color or form, the animal will attend to.

Other experiments have shown that after animals have learned to respond to one aspect of the environment responsiveness to other aspects is suppressed. In "blocking", for example, an animal is conditioned to respond to one stimulus "A" by pairing that stimulus with reward or punishment. After the animal responds consistently to A, a second stimulus "B" accompanies A on additional training trials. Later tests with the B stimulus alone elicit little response, suggesting that learning about B has been blocked by prior learning about A. Thus, in the experiment just cited, the animal failed to attend to B because B added no information to that supplied by A.

If true, this interpretation is an important insight into attentional processing, but this conclusion remains uncertain because blocking and several related phenomena can be explained by models of conditioning that do not invoke attention. Attention is a limited resource and is not an all-or-nothing response: the more attention devoted to one aspect of the environment, the less is available for others. In one experiment, a tone and a light are presented simultaneously to pigeons.

The pigeons gain a reward only by choosing the correct combination of the two stimuli e. The birds perform well at this task, presumably by dividing attention between the two stimuli. When only one of the stimuli varies and the other is presented at its rewarded value, discrimination improves on the variable stimulus but discrimination on the alternative stimulus worsens. As noted above, the function of attention is to select information that is of special use to the animal. Visual search typically calls for this sort of selection, and search tasks have been used extensively in both humans and animals to determine the characteristics of attentional selection and the factors that control it.

Experimental research on visual search in animals was initially prompted by field observations published by Luc Tinbergen For example, he found that birds tended to catch the same type of insect repeatedly even though several types were available. Tinbergen suggested that this prey selection was caused by an attentional bias that improved detection of one type of insect while suppressing detection of others.

This "attentional priming" is commonly said to result from a pretrial activation of a mental representation of the attended object, which Tinbergen called a "searching image". Tinbergen's field observations on priming have been supported by a number of experiments.

For example, Pietrewicz and Kamil , [32] [33] presented blue jays with pictures of tree trunks upon which rested either a moth of species A, a moth of species B, or no moth at all. The birds were rewarded for pecks at a picture showing a moth. Crucially, the probability with which a particular species of moth was detected was higher after repeated trials with that species e.

A, A, A, These results suggest again that sequential encounters with an object can establish an attentional predisposition to see the object. Another way to produce attentional priming in search is to provide an advance signal that is associated with the target. For example, if a person hears a song sparrow he or she may be predisposed to detect a song sparrow in a shrub, or among other birds. A number of experiments have reproduced this effect in animal subjects.

Still other experiments have explored nature of stimulus factors that affect the speed and accuracy of visual search. For example, the time taken to find a single target increases as the number of items in the visual field increases. This rise in RT is steep if the distracters are similar to the target, less steep if they are dissimilar, and may not occur if the distracters are very different from the target in form or color.

Fundamental but difficult to define, the concept of "concept" was discussed for hundreds of years by philosophers before it became a focus of psychological study. Concepts enable humans and animals to organize the world into functional groups; the groups may be composed of perceptually similar objects or events, diverse things that have a common function, relationships such as same versus different, or relations among relations such as analogies.

The latter is freely available online. Most work on animal concepts has been done with visual stimuli, which can easily be constructed and presented in great variety, but auditory and other stimuli have been used as well.

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Animal intelligence – News, Research and Analysis – The Conversation – page 1

Alternatively, a subject may be offered a choice between two or more pictures. Many experiments end with the presentation of items never seen before; successful sorting of these items shows that the animal has not simply learned many specific stimulus-response associations. A related method, sometimes used to study relational concepts, is matching-to-sample. In this task an animal sees one stimulus and then chooses between two or more alternatives, one of which is the same as the first; the animal is then rewarded for choosing the matching stimulus. Perceptual categorization is said to occur when a person or animal responds in a similar way to a range of stimuli that share common features.

For example, a squirrel climbs a tree when it sees Rex, Shep, or Trixie, which suggests that it categorizes all three as something to avoid.


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This sorting of instances into groups is crucial to survival. Among other things, an animal must categorize if it is to apply learning about one object e. Rex bit me to new instances of that category dogs may bite. Many animals readily classify objects by perceived differences in form or color.

Animal intelligence: the smartest animal species in the world

For example, bees or pigeons quickly learn to choose any red object and reject any green object if red leads to reward and green does not. Seemingly much more difficult is an animal's ability to categorize natural objects that vary a great deal in color and form even while belonging to the same group. In a classic study, Richard J. Herrnstein trained pigeons to respond to the presence or absence of human beings in photographs. In follow-up studies, pigeons categorized other natural objects e.

Perceptually unrelated stimuli may come to be responded to as members of a class if they have a common use or lead to common consequences. An oft-cited study by Vaughan provides an example. Pigeons got food for pecking at pictures in set A but not for pecks at pictures in set B. After they had learned this task fairly well, the outcome was reversed: items in set B led to food and items in set A did not. Then the outcome was reversed again, and then again, and so on. Vaughan found that after 20 or more reversals, associating reward with a few pictures in one set caused the birds to respond to the other pictures in that set without further reward, as if they were thinking "if these pictures in set A bring food, the others in set A must also bring food.

Several other procedures have yielded similar results. When tested in a simple stimulus matching-to-sample task described above many animals readily learn specific item combinations, such as "touch red if the sample is red, touch green if the sample is green. Better evidence is provided if, after training, an animal successfully makes a choice that matches a novel sample that it has never seen before.

Monkeys and chimpanzees do learn to do this, as do pigeons if they are given a great deal of practice with many different stimuli. However, because the sample is presented first, successful matching might mean that the animal is simply choosing the most recently seen "familiar" item rather than the conceptually "same" item. A number of studies have attempted to distinguish these possibilities, with mixed results. The use of rules has sometimes been considered an ability restricted to humans, but a number of experiments have shown evidence of simple rule learning in primates [46] and also in other animals.

Much of the evidence has come from studies of sequence learning in which the "rule" consists of the order in which a series of events occurs.

Brain structure

Rule use is shown if the animal learns to discriminate different orders of events and transfers this discrimination to new events arranged in the same order. For example, Murphy et al. Other stimulus triplets were not rewarded. The rats learned the visual sequence, although both bright and dim lights were equally associated with reward. More importantly, in a second experiment with auditory stimuli, rats responded correctly to sequences of novel stimuli that were arranged in the same order as those previously learned.

Similar sequence learning has been demonstrated in birds and other animals as well.