Animal Cognition and Its Similarities to Human Cognition

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson you willl learn about the relationship between animal cognition and human cognition. You will discover how some animal species demonstrate surprising abilities. You will also learn to avoid jumping to conclusions when it comes to understanding animal behavior.

Communicating a Memory

You're out in the woods one day and find the most fantastic treehouse you've ever seen. You make note of where you are and then head back home to tell your friends.

Your friends really want to see this treehouse. But you're too tired to go back, so you tell them how to find it. To do this, you could use many different methods. You might direct your friends to the spot using a compass or GPS, or you could recall your memory of landmarks and the travel-distance and time to the structure. Your friends set off into the woods in search of the treehouse. Since you've done a good job of explaining its location, they find it without a problem.

As a human being, this type of communication is considered a hallmark of what makes us unique. You just transferred complex information using your memory, a spatial map of the landscape, and a sense of time. Even if you relied solely on GPS, you are using a tool that the activity of human brains has created.

Do animals have similar abilities to remember this kind of information, to solve these types of problems, and to communicate their ideas to others in their species? In this lesson, we'll consider some research on animal cognition to help us answer this question.

What is Cognition?

What is cognition, anyway?

When describing human cognition, we typically consider how human beings think, learn, and recall information.

Sometimes the ability to reason is included in this term. Reasoning is often involved in tasks that require comparison and the ability to recognize the relationship between two or more things or ideas.

Consider, for instance, trying to buy a new cell phone. The salesperson tells you that the silver phone is more expensive than the blue one. Then, he mentions that the red cell phone is more expensive than the silver one. You can then reason that this means the red cell phone is also more expensive than the blue one. (You may have to take a moment to read that again!)

Do animals also have this cognitive ability to reason? Do they have the other cognitive abilities to remember, learn, and even teach one another? Let's dig into this controversial and fascinating topic.

Examples of Animal Cognition Research

It's time to talk about Alex. Alex is a famous African grey parrot who was a central figure in the research of biologist Irene Pepperberg. This parrot was taught to categorize objects through extensive training. He was even able to respond to questions like ''What is the same? '' and ''What is different? '' between two objects of distinct color or shape. That's a pretty talented bird!

African grey parrots may have the capacity to learn how to categorize and compare qualities of objects.
An African grey parrot

Although this is not typical behavior for your average grey parrot, Alex was able to demonstrate abilities in the lab that were not expected, until they were attempted. This is important, because it questions our assumptions about the cognitive limitations of certain species. It also appears to demonstrate a similarity between cognition in humans and grey parrots (because both are able to use a form of categorization).

In the wild, we can also find impressive examples of memory and communication in non-human animals. Honeybees, for example, are believed to perform a type of dance along with sound and odors to transfer details about the location of food. Imagine that instead of telling your friends where the treehouse was located, you could use a waggle dance to get your point across?

Honeybee communication about the location of food raises questions about their cognition.
A honeybee flying between flowers

Research also suggests that the scrub-jay (a type of bird) is able to recall information about what type of food it has stored and, even more impressively, when it stored it. Some researchers have wondered whether these birds are able to experience a form of mental time travel that humans use when we try to remember where we put the pretzels after we got home from the grocery store and how long ago that was.

Healthy Skepticism

Some researchers hesitate to make such claims of similarities between humans and other animals. They warn that the cognitive abilities of humans and other species are quite distinct, even when it appears that we are thinking in similar ways.

For instance, cognitive researchers Thomas Suddendorf and Janie Busby point out that there may be simpler explanations to explain how scrub-jays are able to plan and recall information about their food storage. They advocate that we explore these possibilities rather than assume the birds use the mental time travel that we do.

In fact, when considering animal cognition, researchers are very concerned about our tendency to anthropomorphize. When we anthropomorphize, we think about animals having the same qualities as human beings, even when it's not clear that their functioning or processing works the same way.

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