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Animal cognition may have much in common with humans, study shows

Animal cognition

(NaturalNews) Although animals don't speak human languages, they are able to learn in ways similar to Homo sapiens. The University of Iowa has found that pigeons, with a brain no larger than a dime, can categorize and name natural and man made objects like humans do. In their initial research, the researchers showed the birds' ability to categorize 128 photographs into 16 distinct categories.

Professor of psychology and co-author of the study, Ed Wasserman, says the pigeon's ability to categorize photographs is similar to how children learn words. "Unlike prior attempts to teach words to primates, dogs, and parrots, we used neither elaborate shaping methods nor social cues," Wasserman said. "And our pigeons were trained on all 16 categories simultaneously, a much closer analog of how children learn words and categories."

Pigeons learn to correlate words with corresponding pictures

In the experiment, researchers placed a black and white photograph of a dog in front of the pigeons. Simultaneously the pigeons were shown an icon that represented the word "dog" and a randomly selected icon. The pigeons were rewarded with food when they pecked on the correct icon that represented the word "dog." It didn't take long for the pigeons to learn how to associate the picture of the dog with the word. This same experiment was used for 15 other categories. Through positive reinforcement, the pigeons were learning words that matched corresponding pictures. UI psychologist Bob McMurray says the computerized task can be tested on any animal that can interact with the computer screen.

Pigeons simultaneously distinguish words with corresponding pictures from 16 different categories

To take the research a step further, the scientists played the "name game" with three pigeons at once. 128 black and white photos from 16 basic categories were shown to the flock of birds. The categories included car, cracker, dog, duck, fish, bottle, cake, hat, key, plan, shoe, tree, pen, flower, duck, and baby.

The flock of birds were given the option to peck at two different symbols - one that corresponded and one that was randomly selected from the remaining fifteen categories. The birds quickly learned how to simultaneously peck at the correct symbol over and over again. The success continued into four new photos for each of the 16 categories.

Study shows parallels between human and animal cognition

Besides being able to learn words and make distinctions, pigeons also have the uncanny ability to find their way home even if they are hundreds of miles away from their home. They can even do this blindfolded. Their eyesight is second to none. The U.S. Coast Guard uses pigeons to spot people lost at sea. The birds alert the Guard to orange life jackets that they cannot see.

The study gains new ground in the pursuit to understand animal cognition. There may be more similarities between animals and human than previously thought. The method to understand these similarities is where scientists have gone wrong, time and time again. This newest study is an expansion of a1988 project featured in the New York Times where scientists discovered pigeons' ability to distinguish between four object categories.

"Children are confronted with an immense task of learning thousands of words without a lot of background knowledge to go on," he says. "For a long time, people thought that such learning is special to humans. What this research shows is that the mechanisms by which children solve this huge problem may be mechanisms that are shared with many species."




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