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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Researchers find birds can theorize about the minds of others, even those they cannot see

"The question of what sets humans apart from other animals is one of the oldest philosophical puzzles. A popular answer is that only humans can understand that others also have minds like their own." writes Phys.Org.

Researchers tested the ability of crows to empathize with others. 
Credit: Copyright: Jana Müller, Universität Wien

But new research suggests that - birds singled out by many cultures as a symbol of intelligence and wisdom - share at least some of the human ability to think abstractly about other minds, adapting their behavior by attributing their own perceptions to others.

The study, "Ravens Attribute Visual Access to Unseen Competitors," was published Feb. 2 in Nature Communications. It found that ravens guarded caches of food against discovery in response to the sounds of other ravens if a nearby peephole was open, even if they did not see another bird. They did not show the same concern when the peephole was closed, despite the auditory cues.

The findings shed new light on science's understanding of Theory of Mind, the ability to attribute mental states - including vision - to others, said Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. Buckner is an author of the paper, along with Thomas Bugnyar and Stephan A. Reber, cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna.

Most Theory of Mind research involving animals has been done with chimpanzees and other species closely tied to humans. But while those studies have suggested that animals are able to understand what others see - giving them an advantage in competing for food, for example - they rely on the test subjects' ability to see another's head or eyes, providing so-called "gaze cues." Skeptics argue that animals in these experiments might be responding only to these surface cues, without any real understanding of what others see.

"Thus," the authors write describing the previous state of the research, "it still remains an open question whether any nonhuman animal can attribute the concept 'seeing' without relying on behavioral cues."

Buckner, who focuses on animal cognition, said the researchers avoided that concern in this experiment by using only open peepholes and sounds to indicate the presence of a possible competitor, with the ravens never physically able to see another raven in the context of the experiment.

Ravens are a good subject for study, he said, because despite their obvious evolutionary divergence from humans, their social lives go through several distinct phases, similar to people. In particular, they often defend territories in stable breeding pairs as adults but live in more fluid situations as adolescents.
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Additional resources
Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms10506
Bizarre bird behavior predicted by game theory

Source: Phys.Org

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