Scientist postulates 4 aspects of 'humaniqueness' differentiating human and animal cognition

Feb 17, 2008

Shedding new light on the great cognitive rift between humans and animals, a Harvard University scientist has synthesized four key differences in human and animal cognition into a hypothesis on what exactly differentiates human and animal thought.

In new work presented for the first time at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Marc Hauser, professor of psychology, biological anthropology, and organismic and evolutionary biology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, presents his theory of “humaniqueness,” the factors that make human cognition special. He presents four evolved mechanisms of human thought that give us access to a wide range of information and the ability to find creative solutions to new problems based on access to this information.

“Animals share many of the building blocks that comprise human thought, but paradoxically, there is a great cognitive gap between humans and animals,” Hauser says. “By looking at key differences in cognitive abilities, we find the elements of human cognition that are uniquely human. The challenge is to identify which systems animals and human share, which are unique, and how these systems interact and interface with one another.”

Recently, scientists have found that some animals think in ways that were once considered unique to humans: For example, some animals have episodic memory, or non-linguistic mathematical ability, or the capacity to navigate using landmarks. However, despite these apparent similarities, a cognitive gulf remains between humans and animals.

Hauser presents four distinguishing ingredients of human cognition, and shows how these capacities make human thought unique. These four novel components of human thought are the ability to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding; to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation; to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input; and to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.

Earlier scientists viewed the ability to use tools as a unique capacity of humans, but it has since been shown that many animals, such as chimpanzees, also use simple tools. Differences do arise, however, in how humans use tools as compared to other animals. While animal tools have one function, no other animals combine materials to create a tool with multiple functions. In fact, Hauser says, this ability to combine materials and thought processes is one of the key computations that distinguish human thought.

According to Hauser, animals 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. While animals can transfer across systems, this is only done in a limited way.

“For human beings, these key cognitive abilities may have opened up other avenues of evolution that other animals have not exploited, and this evolution of the brain is the foundation upon which cultural evolution has been built,” says Hauser.

Source: Harvard University

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User comments : 6

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MikeMarianiMD,FAAP
5 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2008
How do these Harvard faculty know that other organisms cannot/do not use these mental strategies?
No one believes that other organisms on Earth match H. sapiens cognitive abilities. Their blanket assertion, however, utterly out-paces our ability to measure such skills in other organisms.
Oh... it's Harvard. Forgive me.
Corvidae
5 / 5 (1) Feb 17, 2008
[QUOTE]to apply the same %u201Crule%u201D or solution to one problem to a different and new situation;[/QUOTE]
Keep feeding an octopus using different sized jars and I'd be willing to bet it would figure out "Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey", or some variation of it.

Personally the only difference I've seen between human and animal intelligence is bandwidth. We learn and apply more cognitive functions at once than any other animal. Similar to the difference between a single processor and a thousand.
gopher65
not rated yet Feb 17, 2008
I wouldn't even say that Corvidae. Some animals are remarkably broad in their thinking. But it doesn't matter how intelligent you are if you have fins instead of fingers, does it? If you don't have a way to manipulate your environment then you can never develop technology, regardless of your smarts.

Imagine if all humans were quadriplegic. Do you think we'd ever have developed aircraft and skyscrapers? Or even fire? Imagine how it must be for a dolphin or a wolf then.
SDMike
not rated yet Feb 17, 2008
I've observed individual dogs IQ seem to be highly correlated to their owner's IQ. Somehow I don't think the dogs are so different from each other. Rather, the smarter owners recognize a dogs mental abilities, have higher expectations, allow/support the dog's exhibition of intelligence, and reward complex behavior. Such dog owners are also more articulate in describing their dog's behavior. Perhaps Intelligence is an observational problem. How do I recognize a dolphin solving a complex dolphin social problem?
hawksecho
5 / 5 (2) Feb 17, 2008
I view a major potential flaw in determining "intelligence", is most of us assume the really smart must be tool makers. This may make sense in most situations, but consider: Large brained sea mammals live in an environment where their area of habitation has a narrow chemistry and tempeture (under natural circumstances). They just don't need to build the basis of tools, for shelter, etc. I wonder if a really itelligent life form native or not to this planet walked in front of our nose, if it diden't bother to build a Ginzu knife, (and patent it)would we even notice?
MongHTan,PhD
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2008
I view a major potential flaw in determining "intelligence", is most of us assume the really smart must be tool makers. This may make sense in most situations, but consider: Large brained sea mammals live in an environment where their area of habitation has a narrow chemistry and temperature (under natural circumstances). They just don't need to build the basis of tools, for shelter, etc. I wonder if a really intelligent life form native or not to this planet walked in front of our nose, if it didn't bother to build a Ginzu knife, (and patent it) would we even notice?


Very sharp observation and inquiry! I think our "humaniqueness" may be defined as our unique abilities to learn (from external) information, and be able to manipulate it, in our memory system, as our thoughts and creations, etc, so as to tackle even more information for our own survival on this unique planet Earth.

Fundamentally, this uniqueness in our cognitive abilities solely rests on our evolutionary more dynamic, quantum, mechanisms of our learning and memory system in our brain -- the one that has been extensively and empirically characterized, localized, and defined as "memophorescenicity" in my 2006 seminal and philosophical book "Gods, Genes, Conscience" (Chapter 15: The Universal Theory of Mind, in general; and Chapter 15.4: Memory Modulation and Recall: A New Hypothesis of Psychic Imagery, Perceptivity, Creativity, and Reflectivity, in particular).

Thank you all for your kind attention and cooperation in this matter -- Author "Decoding Scientism" (work in progress since July 2007).