Some Animals Engage in Higher Thinking

Study suggests monkeys, dolphins may be more self-aware than thought

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THURSDAY, Dec. 11, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Some animals may be capable of a sophisticated thought process called metacognition (thinking about thinking), which may mean they have more self-awareness than previously believed.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo, Georgia State University and the University of Montana conducted studies with humans, rhesus monkeys and a single bottlenose dolphin. They were given hard and easy memory tasks.

If they successfully completed a task, they received a reward. If they made a mistake, they were given a timeout period. The animals were also given the option of an "uncertain" response. This let them choose to decline completing a task.

"Given this option, animals might choose to complete trials when they are confident they know, but decline them when they feel something like uncertainty. To show this behavioral pattern, though, animals would have to monitor some psychological signal of confidence or uncertainty and respond adaptively to it," lead researcher John David Smith, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University at Buffalo, says in a prepared statement.

The monkeys and the dolphin used the "uncertain" response in a pattern that was essentially identical to the pattern used by the humans.

"The patterns of results produced by humans and animals provide some of the closest human-animal similarities in performance ever reported in the comparative literature," Smith says.

He says the results suggest some animals have functional features of, or parallels to, human consciousness. These animals seem to be aware of when they know or don't know something.

Smith adds that animals with less cognitive sophistication, such as rats and pigeons, have not demonstrated the same capacity for cognitive monitoring or cognitive self-awareness.

The study appears in the December issue of The Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

More information

Here's where you can learn more about human cognition.

SOURCE: University at Buffalo, news release, December 2003

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