Pigeons Can Unclutter Their Thoughts By Categorizing, Just Like Us

By Shweta Iyer on April 2, 2014 1:35 PM EDT

pigeons
Researchers at the University of Iowa have concluded that animals, like humans, can encode information. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Fables and moral stories are full of anecdotes that tell us about the intelligence of animals and birds. Turns out, there might be some truth in those stories after all. For decades scientists have been interested in animals' ability to decipher information with regards to food, environment, or danger. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Iowa have concluded that animals, like humans, can encode information when they are presented with stimulus by paying special attention to characteristics and make decisions based on them, according to a press release Wednesday.

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The team from Iowa analyzed the selective attention capability of pigeons and found that like humans they can categorize common things and can retain or discard visual information, based on whether they are important and new or junk. The research paper was published April 2, in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition."The basic concept at play is selective attention. That is, in a complex world, with its booming, buzzing confusion, we don't attend to all properties of our environment. We attend to those that are novel or relevant," said Edward Wasserman, UI psychology professor and secondary author of the paper.

Selective attention, considered for long as a unique trait of humans, is defined as the process by which a person can selectively pick out an important item from a mixture of items presented simultaneously. But as this team has found, the skill to distinguish between categories is important to survive in the wild. Lead author of the study Leyre Castro explains, "All animals in the wild need to distinguish what might be food from what might be poison, and, of course be able to single out predators from harmless creatures."

The study also reveals that animals and humans use the same thought process when it comes to making distinctions. Castro and Wasserman's study reveals that learning about an object's relevant characteristics and using those characteristics to categorize it are interrelated. Based on their observations of pigeons Wasserman says, ""We thought they would learn what was relevant (step one) and then learn the appropriate response (step two)." But their analysis revealed that learning and categorizing occur at the same time in the brain.

The researchers conducted a simple experiment to determine whether animals like pigeons really do have selective attention. This involved showing the birds a touchscreen containing two sets of four computer generated images, such as stars, spirals, and bubbles.The pigeons had to distinguish one set from the other. For example, which set contained a star while which contained bubbles.Since pigeons only peck what they see, Wasserman and Castro were able to determine what the birds were seeing by the image they pecked on the touchscreen.They found that the birds were pecking at the relevant, distinguishing characteristics of each set-in this case the stars and the bubbles by using selective attention to place objects in appropriate categories.

"Because a pigeon's beak is midway between its eyes, we have a pretty good idea that where it is looking is where it is pecking," Wasserman said. According to the researchers animals like lizards, goldfish or any bird, fish or reptile may also have selective attention.

He concludes by saying, "However, we can't assume our findings would hold true in an animal with appendages-such as arms-because their eyes can look somewhere other than where their hand or paw is touching."

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