Saturday, February 23, 2008

Animal and Human Cognition: Are the differences that great?

Two articles in the Science Daily news examine the differences in human and animal cognition -- the first, an article linked to the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology Journal that asks the question, "Do Animals Act Like Autistic Savants?: When Temple Grandin argued that animals and autistic savants share cognitive similarities in her best-selling book Animals in Translation (2005), the idea gained steam outside the community of cognitive neuroscientists. Grandin, a professor of animal science whose best-selling books have provided an unprecedented look at the autistic mind, says her autism gives her special insight into the inner workings of the animal mind. She based her proposal on the observation that animals, like autistic humans, sense and respond to stimuli that nonautistic humans usually overlook."

Grandin explains in a separate commentary "the basic disagreement between the authors and me arises from the concept of details--specifically how details are perceived by humans, who think in language, compared with animals, who think in sensory-based data. Since animals do not have verbal language, they have to store memories as pictures, sounds, or other sensory impressions... As a person with autism, all my thoughts are in photo-realistic pictures," she explains. "The main similarity between animal thought and my thought is the lack of verbal language."

But you don't have to be autistic or an animal to think in pictures -- according to Wikipedia, "Research by Child Development Theorist Linda Kreger Silverman suggests that less than 30% of the population strongly uses visual/spatial thinking, another 45% uses both visual/spatial thinking and thinking in the form of words, and 25% thinks exclusively in words. According to Kreger Silverman, of the 30% of the general population who use visual/spatial thinking, only a small percentage would use this style over and above all other forms of thinking, and can be said to be ‘true’ “picture thinkers”. All of which suggests that perhaps the differences in cognition are not as great as we might think.

However, in the second article "What Is The Cognitive Rift Between Humans And Other Animals?" Harvard scientist Marc Hauser presents a new hypothesis on what he thinks defines the cognitive rift between humans and animals: "He identifies four key differences in human thought that make it unique. Animals, for example, have 'laser beam' intelligence, in which a specific solution is used to solve a specific problem. But these solutions cannot be applied to new situations or to solve different kinds of problem. In contrast, humans have 'floodlight' cognition, allowing us to use thought processes in new ways and to apply the solution of one problem to another situation."

Of course, neither of these settle the debate, however, both studies provide substantial food for thought.

(Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Jurie Maree)

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