Psychology in the News

May 20, 2009

Thinking about animal minds (and vice versa?)

Filed under: evolution — Tags: , , , , , — intro2psych @ 9:00 am

By Danielle Sloan

Cheeky Hybrid Capuchin Monkey (Cebus) by Phillip Ritz

Cheeky Hybrid Capuchin Monkey (Cebus) by Phillip Ritz

What makes human cognition unique from that of other animals? This question is far from new and has an extensive history here at Vassar, where Margaret Floy Washburn spent her career searching for possible answers. In her 1908 book, The Animal Mind, she expressed her belief that gaining knowledge on animal cognition is highly similar to doing so on our own, both being derived by the inference of observed behavior. She believed that our actions vary from the actions of animals by degree and not by kind.

Recently, Marc Hauser, professor of psychology, biological anthropology, and organismic and evolutionary biology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has theorized that there may indeed be specific differences in mental capacity between humans and non-humans (Hauser, 2005). Hauser has conducted research in various fields of cognitive science including animal behavior and communication, the evolution of language, domain-specific systems of knowledge, and morality. He says this so-called “humaniqueness” is a set of evolved mechanisms that differentiate human and animal thought. These mechanisms consist of key differences which make humans capable of creating imaginative solutions to new problems. The four unique elements of human thought are the ability to combine and recombine various types of information and knowledge to gain new understanding; to apply the same solution to one problem to a different situation; to create and understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory data; and to separate modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual data.

According to Hauser, these key abilities have created new paths of evolution that other animals have not utilized, creating the foundation upon which cultural evolution has been constructed. He believes that animals have “laser beam” intelligence, in which there are specific solutions for specific problems. In reference to tool-use, a specific tool has a specific function. In comparison, humans have “floodlight” intelligence, which allows us to apply a certain solution to multiple problems. Other animals are capable of this kind of intelligence, but in highly limited ways when compared with humans. Hauser says the cognitive gap between humans and other “smart species” such as chimps, elephants, and dolphins is “greater than that between those animals and worms”.

In the past it was thought that the one of the main cognitive abilities of humans that other animals lacked was the use of tools. However, many animals utilize simple tools. Still, no other animals create multi-functioning tools by combining materials. One study involving the selection of effective stone tools by wild capuchin monkeys shows that these monkeys, when faced with stones differing in friability and weight, choose, transport, and use the most effective stone to crack nuts (Visalberghi, et al., 2009). Eight capuchins that routinely use tools to crack open palm nuts were tested in an area frequently visited, from which all stone hammers were removed. In each trial, there were one functional stone and one or two nonfunctional stone(s). Testing occurred opportunistically, and a trial started when the subject was provided with a nut and subjects received ten trials in each condition. Even when visual cues were unavailable, such as with artificial stones, the monkeys were still able to distinguish the functional one from the others by moving, lifting, and tapping them. Thus, the capuchin monkeys search for the weight, the critical functional feature, even when other cues like size are identical or contradict the critical feature. They then resort to the aforementioned techniques, implying an understanding that not all tools which look appropriate necessarily are so. Thus, these capuchins did not simply learn through trial-and-error to identify stones of certain mineral composition or size, but may understand that critical feature of the stone was weight, and evaluated their choices accordingly. They therefore use more than past experience when examining objects for use, taking in to consideration the task at hand. Thus, the gap between human and other primate cognition in reference to tool-use appears, like Washburn suggested, to vary by degree rather than by a specific type of ability or lack thereof.

Another study explores the use and modification of branches for fly switching by Asian elephants (Hart, et al., 2001). Elephants are known for having the most cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of all primates. The elephants were given branches that were too long or bushy to be effectively used as switches. They modified the branches in different ways, the most common of which involved holding the main stem with the front foot and pulling off a side branch. Thus, non-humans are capable of both picking the “right” tool, as the capuchins did, for the job and creating the right tool for the job through modification, like the elephants. There remains a clear difference between modifying a tree branch to creating highly efficient tools. Whether this difference is based on Hauser’s four critical elements of humaniqueness is unknown, and at this time the extent to which these elements may influence the cognitive gap between humans and non-humans cannot be measured.


Balter, M. (2008). AAAS annual meeting: How human intelligence evolved—is it science or   ‘paleofantasy’? Science, 319(5866), 1028.

Hart, B. L., Hart, L. A., McCoy, M., & Sarath, C. R. (2001). Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants:   Use and modification of branches for fly switching. Animal Behaviour, 62(5),     839-847.

Harvard University (2008, February 22). What Is The Cognitive Rift Between Humans And     Other Animals?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 28, 2009, from

Hauser, M.D. (2005). Our chimpanzee mind. Nature. 437, 60-63).

Visalberghi, E., Addessi, E., Truppa, V., Spagnoletti, N., Ottoni, E., Izar, P., et al. (2009).   Selection of effective stone tools by wild bearded capuchin monkeys. Current Biology,   19(3), 213-217.

Woodworth, R. S. (1949). Margaret Floy Washburn. National Academy of Sciences biographical memoirs. 25, 273-295.


  1. On the idea of cognition, couldn’t this also be extended onto the concept of computer intelligence. You mentioned the idea of “lazer like” and “flood-light like” systems of intelligence and, from you definition, they seem to corespond to the ideas of logic and “fuzzy logic”. The difference between the two being that the “fuzzy logic” systems can produce an answer that isn’t just completely true or completely false. It would seem that the intelligence that you are describing that is present in humans and certain animals follows this definition. To follow the example of the Asian elephants,the branch they were presented was wrong for the task. However, it wasn’t completely wrong and once it had been modified it was then right and suitable for use.


    Comment by Dakota House — October 11, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

  2. The amount of intelligence that animals have never ceases to amaze me. As humans, we tend to characterize all other animals as unintelligent because they have no means of “total” verbal communication. We assume they have no capacity for problem solving and simply exist for existence’s sake. The examples presented by Danielle, however, prove that animals such as capuchin monkeys and elephants are very capable of using critical thinking and reasoning to solve problems that are presented. Just look at this video of a chimpanzee learning to ride a Segaway and reasoning out how to avoid objects by turning.

    Humans also tend to believe that animals are socially primitive and discriminatory towards other species (Madagascar characters aside). However, there is evidence to suggest that animals are capable of putting aside their differences and participating in inter-species interaction beyond that of combative interaction. We’ve all seen the videos of dogs and cats sleeping together on YouTube, and we all know that lions peacefully rule over their kingdoms (until Moufassa tries to become the Lion King). When survival is not at stake, it is known that animals can exist peacefully together in the same environment. However, you have to wonder if maybe animals are capable of more involved inter-species interactions. I’m not exactly talking about the kind of interaction explained in the post “Attached to love”, but maybe animals are able to create deeper relationships with animals outside of their own species.

    Comment by Ross Macklin — October 13, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  3. What if we turn the spotlight onto our selves and ask what kind of “involved inter-species interactions” we participate in? I’d say the extent of it is that we own pets. We display affection, camaraderie and love towards them, which is perhaps what Ross meant by “deeper relationships.” But although pets are wonderful, they are accessories. They are mere extensions of our human desire to love and care for things; pets provide nothing absolutely necessary for our survival.

    Animals and plants in the natural world, on the other hand, have more developed necessary inter-species relationships. The mutuality present in the symbiotic relationships between anemone and clownfish, hummingbirds and flowers, beans and corn, and hundreds more examples, trump the “mutuality” between humans and other species.

    Rather than seeing animals as the only “socially primitive and discriminatory” beings, I think it is necessary to implicate ourselves. And instead of imposing the importance or significance of “more involved inter-species interactions” onto them, perhaps we should learn from the way they do interact with other species, even if it is not one of affection or love. There is a lot to be learned from the natural world in terms of sustainability, survival, and harmonious interaction with other species.

    Comment by Catie Hall — October 28, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  4. To respond to Catie – Pets may provide nothing absolutely necessary for survival nowadays, but they used to. That is, for instance, how researchers believe wolves were originally domesticated. Wolves that were brave enough to follow nomadic humans around, who barked or howled to alert humans of danger, were treated to scraps of food/leftovers. Over time, humans started using them to hunt, to herd, and eventually began to view them as companions. (,9171,1921614,00.html)

    Also Catie, you say of pets that “they are mere extensions of our human desire to love and care for things; pets [no longer] provide nothing absolutely necessary for our survival.” I’m not saying I necessarily disagree, but if you categorize human-pet relationships in this way, I think you also have to concede that the same could hold true for a lot of human to human relationships. Could friendship and love not be described as “mere extensions of our human desire to love and care for things?” And they certainly aren’t essential to survival.

    Comment by Psych105 Student — November 16, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

  5. It is not often humans’ talk about animal intelligence; it was a nice change of pace to look at animal cognition rather than human cognition. It is interesting that capuchins can “pick the right tool” to crack open palm nuts. It is also remarkable that elephants can modify branches to be effective for fly switching. But there was a third animal that was identified as a “smart species” that was not talked about, the dolphin.

    Dolphins live in complex societies and are capable of this by their abilities in recognition, cooperation, competition and social behaviors. Studies show that cognitive skills like imitation, that ability to understand cues, and the ability to communicate with humans by pointing (joint attention) explain their complex behavior. Joint attention displayed in bottlenose dolphins is said to possibly be better than that of apes. Through joint attention dolphins can understand human pointing cues, the reference of the pointing, the ability to follow the sequence to move one object to another and how to produce cues that are important to audience attention. Perhaps, that is why dolphins seem to steal the show at Sea World.

    Comment by Psych 105 student — November 20, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  6. Big egos are big shields for lots of empty space.

    Comment by Cheeky Monkey treehouse design — July 18, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

  7. Would you consider it possible for certain other species to catch to to humans in cognitive ability? I think it is plausible to believe that human cognition expanded more rapidly than that of other animals but will one day be re aligned with a few other species.

    Comment by Psych Student — April 4, 2013 @ 12:42 am

  8. As the owner of three cats I have definitely seen this “laser beam” intelligence that animals possess in action. When it reaches that time of night when they are supposed to be fed dinner my cats get very impatient. In order to get the attention of whoever is in the house, my cats will jump on the nearest dresser or counter and start knocking off whatever small objects they may find there. My cats realize that if they continue this disruptive behavior, whoever is around them will get very annoyed and will feed them sooner so that they can be left in peace. Annoy the humans and you will get food, seems to be the logic they have developed. While they may not be solving the complex problems that humans are capable of dealing with, my cats do have some level of intelligence pertaining to the issues that are important to their lives.

    Comment by Hannah Keohane — April 22, 2013 @ 7:28 pm

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