We know that rats in studies create new mental maps for new spatial situations such as a new maze. But scientists do not know how the animal decides when a situation is new enough to requires a new map.
No two situations are ever exactly alike, for animals as well as humans, but how much needs to change to create a new map? The scientists at MIT and Harvard postulate that they can determine this with Bayesian statistics, a mathematical model. This model can take into account individual differences in animals as well as the situation.
Understanding remapping is important because when scientists evaluate a problem or test, they do not know if the rat is thinking about experiment A or experiment B. This will change the results of the test and possibly give scientists false data which leads to conflicting, confusing or surprising results.
Communication is always a problem when people work or train animals. We cannot tell them about the context of an experiment, the animal has to make his own conclusions based on what he sees or experiences. The researchers feel that by using a probabilistic approach, they can determine how uncertainty plays a role when change occurs.
While all of these methods are a good attempt to understand the mind of animals, because if it applies to a rat it most likely applies to other animals as well. However, as I tell my clients, there are only two beings who will know for sure what is in the mind of an animal—the animal and God. No one else, but we need to keep trying.
Edward Wasserman, Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa has determined that pigeons use a common area of the brain to judge space and time. This suggests that these abstract concepts are not processed separately.
Parrotlet “Sweet Pea”
To determine this, the pigeons were put through the “common magnitude” test. This is where the birds were shown (on a computer) a horizontal line either 6 cm or 24 cm long for either 2 seconds or 8 seconds. When they correctly pecked one of four visual symbols, the length or the duration of the line, they received food.
This compares with a person’s ability to determine space and time without the use of a watch or ruler. Other animals that have been tested have also shown this ability.
One common example that almost all pet owners have witnessed is when their pet knows that they are coming home each day. The dog or cat who waits for their owner to come home from work at the same time each day exhibits what the researchers have tested in pigeons.
There is so much about animals that we are still learning. If only they could talk and tell is what is on their minds!
A recent comparison of the number of cortical neurons in the brains of various carnivores found two things: First, the size of the brain does not necessarily coordinate with the level of intelligence as was previously thought and, Second, dogs have over twice the neurons than cats.
For example, raccoons have as many neurons as a primate but in the brain about the size of a cat while bears have the same number of neurons as a cat but in a much larger brain.
The research was conducted by Associate Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences Suzana Herculano-Houzel, who developed the method for accurately measuring the number of neurons in brains.
Herculano-Houzel is convinced that the number of neurons an animal has determines their ability to predict what is about to happen in their environment based on their experience. What that may mean is that dogs are biologically capable of doing more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats.
The study also found that there was no difference between wild and domestic animals or predators or prey. It was always thought that predators were smarter than prey.
My comments: This is an interesting study that adds more fuel to the debate about who is smarter, dogs or cats. One thing to keep in mind is that intelligence varies from individual to individual (human or animal) and having greater intelligence does not necessarily mean it is used to its fullest capability. In the case of animals, there is no accurate way to measure their true intelligence or their willingness to do what humans want, also known as being biddable.
We know that elephants are one of the smartest animals. They are one of the few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror along with great apes, dolphins and magpies. But scientists wanted to know if they recognize their own body in relationship to their environment, known as “body awareness.” Human children cannot do this until they are two years old. To test this, scientists attached a stick to a mat and then had the elephants stand on the mat while asking them to hand the tester the stick. In 42 out of 48 tests, elephants stepped off the mat so that they could pick up the stick to give to the tester. This shows that elephants are aware of their body in relation to their environment.
Why is this important? Animals that show self-recognition demonstrate cooperative problem-solving, perspective taking and empathy. This leads to cooperation in a social environment. Understanding this in animals may help us understand them better and learn how individual animals determine how to help others.
Although many animals have not been tested or have not passed this type of test, it does not mean that they are not capable of self-recognition or body awareness. Many times, the right test has not been developed for that species of animal. Think of the many accounts of animals preforming unusual feats of heroism, helping other animals or humans in life-threatening situations when they have never been trained to do so. It is something to think about and is exciting to think of how much more we have to learn about animals.