Self-reflective mind: Psychologists report on continuing advances in animals

Mar 22, 2012 By Patricia Donovan
Scientists concur that when it comes to this Old World macaque: monkey see, monkey do, monkey think about what monkey do, monkey maybe do something else.

(PhysOrg.com) -- According to one of the leading scholars in the field, there is an emerging consensus among scientists that animals share functional parallels with humans' conscious metacognition -- that is, our ability to reflect on our own mental processes and guide and optimize them.

In two new contributions to this influential field of comparative psychology, David Smith, PhD, of the University at Buffalo and his fellow researchers report on continuing advances in this domain.

Smith is a professor in the Department of Psychology at UB, and a member of the university's graduate program in evolution, ecology and behavior and its Center for Cognitive Science. His co-authors on the articles are Justin J. Couchman, PhD, visiting assistant professor of psychology, State University of New York at Fredonia, and Michael J. Beran, PhD, senior research scientist, Language Research Center, Georgia State University.

In "The Highs and Lows of Theoretical Interpretation in Animal-Metacognition Research," in press at the journal , Smith, Couchman and Beran examine the theoretical and philosophical problems associated with the attribution of self-reflective, conscious mind to nonverbal animals.

Philosophical Transactions is a highly visible journal in the biological sciences and one of the oldest published in English.

"The possibility of animal metacognition has become one of the research focal points in comparative psychology today," Smith says, "but, of course, this possibility poses difficult issues of scientific interpretation and inference." In this article, they evaluate the standards that science brings to making difficult interpretations about animal minds, describing how standards have been applied historically and as they perhaps should be applied. The article concludes that macaques do show uncertainty-monitoring capacities that are similar to those in humans.

The other contribution, "Animal Metacognition," will be published in March by Oxford University Press in the volume "Comparative Cognition: Experimental Explorations of Animal Intelligence." Smith says this volume will be one of the preeminent sources for scholarship in animal cognition for the next decade.

In this article, Smith and his colleagues provide a comprehensive review of the current state of the animal-metacognition literature. They describe how Smith inaugurated animal as a new field of study in 1995 with research on a bottlenosed dolphin. The dolphin assessed correctly when the experimenter's trials were too difficult for him, and adaptively declined to complete those trials.

The dolphin also showed his own distinctive set of hesitation, wavering and worrying behaviors when the trials were too difficult. In sharp contrast, when the trials were easy, he swam to the responses so fast that he would make a bow-wave around himself that would swamp Smith's delicate electronics. Smith says: "We finally had to buy condoms to protect the equipment."

Subsequently, Smith and many collaborators also explored the metacognitive capacities of joystick-trained macaques. These Old-World monkeys, native to Africa and Asia, can make specific responses to declare uncertainty about their memory. They can respond, "Uncertain," to gain hints from the experimenters of what to do on the first trial of new tasks. They can even respond, "Uncertain," when their memory has been erased by trans-cranial magnetic stimulation. Accordingly, this second article by Smith and colleagues also supports the consensus that animals share with humans a form of the self-reflective, metacognitive capacity.

"In all respects," says Smith, "their capacity for uncertainty monitoring, and for responding to uncertainty adaptively, show close correspondence to the same processes in humans.

"At present," he says, "members of South-American monkey species or New World monkeys have not shown the same robust capacities for uncertainty monitoring, a possible species difference that has intriguing implications regarding the emergence of reflective mind in monkeys, apes and humans."

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baudrunner
3.6 / 5 (8) Mar 22, 2012
So what makes animals different from humans? Animals can be disgusted, have hissy fits, and judge you with disfavor for some indiscretion. However, one sure thing that sets animals apart from humans is the fact that they can get over things quickly.
antialias_physorg
3.6 / 5 (8) Mar 22, 2012
So what makes animals different from humans?

Quantitatively? A lot. Qualitatively? Nothnig.
Shelgeyr
1.7 / 5 (15) Mar 22, 2012
So what makes animals different from humans?

We're nth-degree tool users.

Some animals have been documented making a tool to accomplish a task (chimps and octopi spring immediately to mind). As far as I know, no animal (other than we humans), can build a tool to build a tool to accomplish a task, much less do that to the nth-degree, i.e. have as many levels of "build the tool to build the tool" as necessary.

It would be cool if we could observe a chimp doing something like sharpening a rock in order to cut down a stick in order to use it to poke into an ant hive and pull out dinner. But while we've seen them use sticks to get ants that way, I'm pretty sure we've never seen them create a stick cutting tool for that purpose.

So what makes animals different from humans?

We cook (most of) our food?

So what makes animals different from humans?

We're created in God's image.
epsi00
3.9 / 5 (7) Mar 22, 2012
So what makes animals different from humans?


old ideas that have no scientific basis.

antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (7) Mar 22, 2012
We cook (most of) our food?

Cooking? You mean the act of (partially) breaking down food outside our bodies in order to facilitate digestion? Spiders do that, too. They just don't use heat - instead they use enzymes. Same effect.

As far as I know, no animal (other than we humans), can build a tool to build a tool to accomplish a task

You mean like Caledonian crows (though they do not 'manufacture' the second tool they can use sequential tools for a task)?
http://www.cell.c...901845-3

JRDarby
3.5 / 5 (4) Mar 22, 2012
The idea that animals are like humans is backwards. More appropriately, humans are like animals because they are a subclass of that larger class.

Furthermore, it pains me to see labels like disgust and hissy fit applied to animals because these terms are anthropocentric and have little connection, most of the time, with what the animal is actually experiencing. It is essentially a problem of semantics and precision in language. The prevailing theory of emotion is that one "feesl" and then labels (e.g. your friend startles you, you react, and you label the emotion fear). I'm sure this applies to non-human animals also.

However, I think the problem is that humans are capable of (very) long-term thinking and do not forget as easily as other animals (as one person mentioned above). To me this means that any emotion felt by a human seems more likely to fit within the full semantic meaning of the word. I don't think animals "dislike" as much as "react negatively to stimulus" for example.
Nemo
4 / 5 (5) Mar 22, 2012
I can see in my dog a lot of parallels to human cognition and emotion. Knowing how she thinks makes it a lot more fun to be around her and have a relationship with her. There are very real limits but a light is definitely on in there.
JRDarby
2.5 / 5 (6) Mar 22, 2012
Knowing how she thinks


I doubt your dog "thinks" in the same sense of the word that a person thinks. I'll be the first to admit that we humans STRONGLY underestimate the effects of instinct on our thought and behavior, often even mistaking reflex for thought and "autopilot" for consciousness. Nonetheless, I believe the evidence shows that we humans have a far broader capacity for thought than many animals.

As I was saying above, I think it's incorrect to use anthropocentric (or anthropomorphic) words when describing behaviors of most other animals. It is more precise to say that your dog "appeared" confused than he "was" confused.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (7) Mar 22, 2012
Plenty of evidence for long term memory in animals.
No qualitative definition of a difference between humans and animals has stood the test of time.

To say that humans are different from animals because they "have a far broader capacity for thought" would mean that giraffes are also not animals because they have a "far longer neck reach than any other entity". Going for these types of quantitative differences and calling them 'fundamental' is bogus.

We're animals. We are also humans. Just like tigers are animals and also tigers.
bewertow
4 / 5 (8) Mar 22, 2012
We're created in God's image.


Please provide empirical evidence.
Eikka
3 / 5 (5) Mar 22, 2012
No qualitative definition of a difference between humans and animals has stood the test of time.


There's no claim that humans aren't animals.

But, there are animals that lack a brain; for example a starfish. To say that there are no qualitive differences between all animals and humans is bogus.

There's no reason why there couldn't be fundamental differences in how one species works as compared to another, just as well as you can build a computer out of transistors, but one can be digital and the other can be analog, one can be turing-complete while the other is not, one can be Harvard architecture while the other is Von Neumann... etc.

Assuming that all animals work the way we do, and that there is only quantitive differences, is unwarranted anthropomorphism which is just as bad as assuming that we're unique.
sigfpe
5 / 5 (4) Mar 22, 2012
JRDarby ,

> Furthermore, it pains me to see labels like disgust and hissy fit applied to animals because these terms are anthropocentric and have little connection, most of the time, with what the animal is actually experiencing.

I don't really know what it means to say "what the animal is actually experiencing". That doesn't sound like anything we can easily determine. So if we're talking about animal behavior I don't see what purpose it could serve to talk about such a thing. It makes much more sense to use language that can be used to model animals predictively. If my wife tells me "the cat is scared of the contractor working on the roof" I immediately know that the cat is probably going to be hiding behind the TV or under the bed. This is useful. Speculating about she is "actually experiencing" isn't going to tell me where to find her. I love using anthropomorphisms with predictive value.
kaasinees
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 22, 2012
Cooking? You mean the act of (partially) breaking down food outside our bodies in order to facilitate digestion? Spiders do that, too. They just don't use heat - instead they use enzymes. Same effect.

We use enzymes to. They are just in our mouth.
MrVibrating
4.3 / 5 (4) Mar 22, 2012
Self reflection, like theory of mind, falls out of the concept of agency; the sense that one is a causal agent, and that there are likewise others, with their own concepts, incentives and intents. But this notion is an illusion, a post-hoc interpretation of our motivations. All we have to "guide and optimise" them is emotions and some hormone secretions. So any animal with such a notion is in that sense "the same" as us, that's the basic 'spark' of what we think of as human-like sentience. As antialias physorg notes however, such animals aren't 'like' us, rather we're of THEIR kind. What really sets us ahead is complexity, our capacity for recursive metaphor, concepts that mean concepts that mean still others, the resulting ability to use language to better process information, and meta-information, and ultimately tackle concepts like this.
MrVibrating
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 22, 2012
No macaque will ever savour the irony of appreciating that while many of us still struggle to come to terms with the idea that other animals are conscious in the same way as us - that they're not mere automatons acting purely on instinct, and that we're not merely naive anthropomorphists - in reality we're ALL just hapless robots with delusions of grandeur but not-quite-enough self reflection to usually notice... i mean even the smartest African Grey parrot would struggle with a run-on sentence like that.
JRDarby
2 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
I don't really know what it means to say "what the animal is actually experiencing". That doesn't sound like anything we can easily determine.


I agree. The problem, in my opinion, is that we *can't* determine what they are experiencing. I don't think it's appropriate to apply any cognitive or emotional label when describing other animals because of this.

The best we can determine is that certain animals or species have certain patterns of behavior (or certain brain activity if using instruments). We can relate this understanding to our own conceptions of our own instinct, emotion, and cognition.

While I'll be the first to admit that non-human animals share many of the behaviors or mental capacities humans do (I see my cat "frown" all the time when she is obviously "upset" about something), it's imprecise at best to use human words to label nonhuman behavior.

Continued.
JRDarby
3 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
The issue as I see it is that our language is tailored to our own experience, not to the experience of non-human animals that you and I both agree is difficult at best to determine. It's similar to how maths models our perceptions of the universe rather than the universe as it is (tho' doubtless there is overlap).

While our experiences may be similar to and overlap on many levels with other animals' experience, this does not mean that they are identical and should be treated as such. Admittedly, some degree of overlap deserves some degree of tolerance, but I think by using imprecise language we are poisoning any discussion that might lead to greater understanding.

I think it is more appropriate in many cases to refer to the observable behavior rather than the unobservable (and speculative) inner-workings of the animal's mind. Contrast "My cat was angry" with "I perceived my cat as angry" -- the latter is more accurate, but even the word "anger" carries human connotations with it.
JRDarby
4 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
I can see two reasons for continuing to use imprecise (and often inaccurate) language in this way:

(1) as you mentioned, the status quo allows predictions about the future. Maybe it was Kuhn or someone else who remarked that the ability to make predictions from laws was a hallmark of science, and I agree.

On the other hand, we stifle our ability to make more precise predictions by using less precise terms. In finding the cat under the bed, this may not matter, but in actual scientific inquiry it might.

Furthermore, and most importantly to me, because the way we speak influences the way we think and act, our linguistic imprecision creates the danger of an improper relationship with our non-human animal family. If you were to refer to your cat as "scared" when the plumber comes and she runs under the bed, you wouldn't be wrong exactly, though you know that your cat is not really scared but reacting instinctively to a perceived threat; there is no thought, only reaction.
JRDarby
4 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
When you think of your cat as scared rather than reacting instinctively, you may be persuaded to attempt to comfort your cat to coax it out. But comforting her won't solve the underlying problem because she's not actually "scared." You must remove the negative stimulus, wait for the internal stimulus to be lost (forgotten, overriden by a competing one, etc.), or allow her metacognition to override the instinctual impulse (if this is even possible in cats). This example doesn't do the concept justice, but I hope you get the point.

(2) Using precise and accurate language would take a LOT of time and be very inefficient. You would think me obnoxious were I to say "I perceived [or really, "inferred"] that my cat was upset because I just accidentally stepped on her tail and her facial muscles are bunched up in a way that, would this have occurred in a human, would indicate frustration" instead of "My cat is upset."

Nonetheless, there are important semantic distinctions between the two.
JRDarby
2 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
First, implicit in the status quo language is the erroneous assumption that we can determine and cognize the mental processes of non-human animals, at least to a meaningful degree. While you may be able to describe some cats more or less accurately and precisely, you can't describe the emotions of fish, frogs, or fowl (some of them, anyway; I've had some interesting experiences with pigeons).

Again, the very definitions of emotion words (or any words) impute human understandings of those concepts. You can't really understand "angry" without conceptualizing how to determine when someone is angry. We know someone is angry by their body language and behavior. Most animals do not share our body language because they do not share our bodies; we are not even sure that some animals can experience certain emotions at all, much more that they experience these in the same manner as we do.

JRDarby
4 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
Second, it is only meaningful to apply labels to phenomena these labels feasibly encompass. Most of our labels assume some sort of awareness of our thoughts and actions as we have them: rather than an emotion occurring to someone unbeknownst to him/her, human emotions are generally described as not stimuli-to-action but as discrete states of thought.

The cat has a reason for being averse to a stimulus, and may react negatively to that experience of aversion. At no point, however, does the cat recognize her emotion and respond to it with the awareness that it is responding to it. The cat (assuming linguistic aptitude) would never label her own emotion as "anger" like a human might. Moreover, all data seems to indicate that (most) animals, including humans, react first and think second.

There is no problem in describing a cat running away from a dog, a minor problem in describing the cat as scared of the dog, but it is completely speculative to say the cat did not like the dog or why.
JRDarby
3 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
The strongest argument against anything I've said, in my opinion, is that, as animals, most of the distinctions I've drawn between non-human animals and humans are illusory. Most humans react before they think, often don't know why they behave how they do, and experience the same brain reactions leading to their behaviors that I've suggested we should appeal to when labeling and describing animal experience.

Humans infer emotion and awareness in other humans as much as in non-humans. These inferences are equally speculative and the labels we apply to describe our perceptions are equally imprecise. Furthermore, there is the problem of determinism still to reckon with: aren't we all, at some level, only ever REACTING instinctively (especially if you broaden the definition of instinct to include learned behaviors)? If so, doesn't that mean that we never really "become angry" in the sense that our emotion is only a reaction to external stimulus rather than a conscious response?
JRDarby
4 / 5 (2) Mar 23, 2012
In short, my problem is essentially semiotic. Words are symbols used to describe our perceptions. These perceptions differ from person to person, may be grossly inaccurate from the start, and at best serve as starting points from which to make inferences. How we perceive and how we communicate perceptions matters, and I am unhappy with the casual acceptance of imprecision.

Antialias, your comparison between my comments and your giraffe example misunderstand my points. I never said humans weren't animals; in fact, I said they were animals, and a sub-class of the greater animal class. Essentially I said what you said when you said tigers are tigers and animals too. I only tried to draw some distinction between human animals and most non-human animals. Moreover, I don't see how you went from "different from animals" to "also not animals" in the same sentence in comparing the two ideas; they are completely different. I can be a human and be different than a tiger, but we are both animals.
JRDarby
5 / 5 (1) Mar 23, 2012
(last post; I ran out of room) I agree with Eikka, and s/he answered your contention more simply and elegantly than I could have or did.
antialias_physorg
3.8 / 5 (5) Mar 23, 2012
But, there are animals that lack a brain; for example a starfish. To say that there are no qualitive differences between all animals and humans is bogus.

Sure. But what's the point of making this human-animal dichotomy? If you want to argue that humans are special because we have X whereas other animals don't have X then ALL creatures are special because you can always find an X for any creature involved that is unique to that species.

Further arguing that there are some traits X which are superior (i.e. somehow 'worth more' as qualitative differences as compared to trait Y is also bogus.)

Humans happen to have developed brains. But then arguing that brains are somehow a 'specail' trait which elevates it above, say, 'speed' (which probably goes to some other animal) or 'ability to live under harsh conditions unaided' (which goes to some inscts or bacteria or viruses)

Just enumerating differences means nothing. Certainly not if we use circular reasoning for 'superiority'.
JRDarby
2 / 5 (3) Mar 23, 2012
antialias, I think you're missing the point. No one could disagree that some species are better at some things than others. But no one has said (with the exception perhaps of Shelgeyr) that humans are superior.

The point is that there are relevant differences that provide relevant advantages. You comparing giraffe necks to human brains is completely non sequitur. Human brains are adapted to human language, human instinct, human behavior, and vice versa on all counts. Precisely for this reason, I don't think it's appropriate to apply human labels to non-human phenomena. This is why I said we should not use anthropomorphic (and anthropocentric, as it is by a human, for other humans, using human capacities, experiences, and perceptions) language to refer to non-human animals.
Isaacsname
3 / 5 (1) Mar 24, 2012
Aww no !! The monkeys are gonna take all the jobs...*weeps*

Mahal_Kita
3.7 / 5 (6) Mar 24, 2012
We're still stuck in the Christian (et al) way of thinking for the most part. We humans are not so very different from the species that surround us.
Shelgeyr
2.5 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2012
@antialias_physorg said (in answer to me):
Cooking? You mean the act of (partially) breaking down food outside our bodies in order to facilitate digestion? Spiders do that, too.

No, but good point, and I was wondering if someone was going to bring up spiders, or gardener ants, or digger wasps, or the like, but I could just as easily gone all "Prometheus" and simply said "Fire!"

You mean like Caledonian crows... they can use sequential tools...

No, but good point again. I probably should have added crows to the "chimps and octopi" list because sequential tool use is so cool, but I really was referring to simply "nth-degree" tool use. Probably should say "nth-degree tool creation" to be more clear.
Callippo
1 / 5 (3) Mar 24, 2012
So what makes animals different from humans? Animals can be disgusted, have hissy fits, and judge you with disfavor for some indiscretion. However, one sure thing that sets animals apart from humans is the fact that they can get over things quickly.
There are qualitative levels of consciousness, which you cannot overcome so easily. Many people here are fighting for or against GW, they're called herself leftists and rightists mutually - but who of these people realized his real position in this confrontation in unbiased way?

For example, the dense aether theory is conceptually very simple - but who of you ever understand, what I'm talking about all the time? It's not stuff of complexity, but the new qualitative level of thinking: the realization of our own position in observable reality.

Callippo
1.7 / 5 (3) Mar 24, 2012
In physics many people are dealing with development of relativity and quantum mechanics and they're trying to combine them into "great unification", but who ever proposed an explanation, why we have just two leading physical theories? And not two or five, for example? Who ever did think about it? I can't somehow find any evidence of it in the literature. From some reason the people are accepting the existence of these theories like the undeniable fact. They're not asking these questions, because they still didn't realize, they can do it in similar way, like the cow which never leaves its its grass horizon at the meadows.
Tausch
2 / 5 (3) Mar 24, 2012
In this article, they evaluate the standards that science brings to making difficult interpretations about animal minds, describing how standards have been applied historically and as they perhaps should be applied. The article concludes that macaques do show uncertainty-monitoring capacities that are similar to those in humans. - Reseachers/authors for the article


In this article, they evaluate the standards that science brings to making difficult interpretations about human minds, describing how standards have been applied historically and as they perhaps should be applied. The article concludes that humans do show uncertainty-monitoring capacities that are similar to those in animals. - Me making 'metacognitive' critical word substitutes


Illusions are wonderful. Especially ones almost completely understood and/or explained from human physiology and knowledge.
What life forms experience illusions besides humans?
Which are shared by both humans and other life forms?
Tausch
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 24, 2012
What really sets us ahead is complexity, our capacity for recursive metaphor, concepts that mean concepts that mean still others, the resulting ability to use language to better process information, and meta-information, and ultimately tackle concepts like this. - Mr.Vibrating


Forty words to say one word: 'association(s)'.
One conjecture is to simply assert our associations outnumber any of those of other life forms.

Kudos to all comments - wonderful thread commentary.
antialias_physorg
3.5 / 5 (4) Mar 25, 2012
Human brains are adapted to human language, human instinct, human behavior, and vice versa on all counts

Same thing. Humans are adapted to human conditions. Giraffes are adapted to giraffe conditions (with giraffe 'language', giraffe instinct and giraffe behavior).

Our development mirrors an adaptation to an environment (which includes society). This goes for EVERY other animal on the planet, too. There's nothing special here.
Au-Pu
3 / 5 (4) Mar 25, 2012
Thanks to both JRDarby and antialias physorg for interesting commentary. Vastly superior to the nonsense of shelgeyr.
The greatest problem we humans have is in our acquisition of technology. We convince ourselves that this makes us superior to all other animals.
I think we nedd to look at other traits.
For example how many animals kill the young of their own kind?
Only two come to mind for me Lions and Hyenas.
Other species tend to guard and protect their young even if they are not the parents.
I regard this as much more civilised than our behaviour.
We not only have sexual predators and other child abusers but we also have deliberate child exploitation by corporations.
Most animals of similar species have territorial conflicts and these are usually resolved by display rather than by slaughter.
We are different we quickly resort to slaughter to get what we want whether we do it on a national scale or on a personal scale (that we call murder). We are the most barbaric of animals.
Cynical1
5 / 5 (1) Mar 25, 2012
After reading a good number of comments and a bit of reflection, it would appear that the large number of strongly worded/defended opinions stated here are an indication of the fact that many individuals do not share the same certain/uncertain reflective abilities/traits exhibited by "animals"...