May 2008

The results of his experiments suggest "that pigeons and maybe other animals with very small brains are cognitively more sophisticated than we might think," says Robert Cook. Photo: Zara Tzanev

Bird Brains

Pigeons might be smarter than we realize, and tell us something about the origin of reasoning

By Taylor McNeil

Maybe we shouldn't be cracking jokes about people being bird brains. It might be, in fact, that our feathered friends are more on the ball than we realized-and might teach us a thing or two about the origins of our own intelligence.

In a recent study, Robert Cook, professor and chair of psychology, demonstrated what he considers to be the possible cognitive antecedents of analogical reasoning in pigeons. If the finding holds up to further testing, it may imply visual origins of thinking, meaning that such powers didn't just suddenly appear in humans, but evolved in other animals, too.

Cook and his colleague, Edward Wasserman, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Iowa, created arrays of 16 identical computer icons and 16 entirely distinct icons for the experiment. After 10 to 20 pecks on each, two new arrays of identical and mixed icons-which were completely different from the ones originally presented-were placed before the pigeons, and the birds equally distinguished them. When the birds made correct associations, they were rewarded with grain; incorrect associations received a "10-second dark time-out."

The results suggest "that pigeons and maybe other animals with very small brains are cognitively more sophisticated than we might think," Cook says. "I think it helps us to begin to understand the origins of complex thinking."

The study, which was published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, "may imply the visual origins of thinking-that it's not something that just appeared in humans all of a sudden," Cook says. "It might have had an early visual basis in hominoids or primates or other kinds of animals, something that then we were able to build on, that we can now do very complex kinds of analogical reasoning."

Response to the paper has been good, but by nature scientists are skeptics. So now Cook is planning new experiments to try to reinforce his findings, such as changing the array sizes and shapes and the order in which the arrays are presented.

Another experiment he wants to run is to teach the pigeons to recognize "same-different" patterns in sounds, and try to "transfer it to the visual domain," Cook says. If that's the case, "that would suggest they have a really true higher order idea of what's going on, and it's not just tied into the things in the perceptual systems."

But that doesn't mean he'll find what he's expecting. "I'm constantly surprised by what the birds do," he says. "Every time I think I understand them, I do a new experiment and they surprise me with the results."

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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