Pigeons can place everyday things in categories like humans

Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that pigeons share human`s ability to place everyday things in categories.

ANI| Updated: Apr 03, 2014, 12:41 PM IST

Washington: Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that pigeons share human`s ability to place everyday things in categories.

Like people, they can hone in on visual information that is new or important and dismiss what is not.
"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," Edward Wasserman, UI psychology professor and secondary author on the paper, said.

Selective attention has traditionally been viewed as unique to humans. But as UI research scientist and lead author of the study Leyre Castro explains, scientists now know that discerning one category from another is vital to survival.

"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," she said.

More than that, other creatures seem to follow the same thought process humans do when it comes to making these distinctions. Castro and Wasserman`s study reveals that learning about an object`s relevant characteristics and using those characteristics to categorize it go hand-in-hand.
When observing pigeons, "We thought they would learn what was relevant (step one) and then learn the appropriate response (step two)," Wasserman said.

But instead, the researchers found that learning and categorization seemed to occur simultaneously in the brain.

To test how, and indeed whether, animals like pigeons use selective attention, Wasserman and Castro presented the birds with a touchscreen containing two sets of four computer-generated images-such as stars, spirals, and bubbles.

The pigeons had to determine what distinguished one set from the other. For example, did one set contain a star while the other contained bubbles?

By monitoring what images the pigeons pecked on the touchscreen, Wasserman and Castro were able to determine what the birds were looking at. Were they pecking at the relevant, distinguishing characteristics of each set-in this case the stars and the bubbles?

The answer was yes, suggesting that pigeons-like humans-use selective attention to place objects in appropriate categories. And according to the researchers, the finding can be extended to other animals like lizards and goldfish.

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.