Do pigeons and children learn the same way?

Do pigeons and children learn a language the same way? It may seem as a simple question with a logical answer: no because pigeons can’t talk. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, as Ben Goldacre would say, a new study suggests that there is a similarity between how pigeons learn the equivalent of words and the way children do and this is based on the fact that pigeons can categorize 128 photographs into 16 categories of natural and humanmade objects. Let’s dig deeper (I’ve added bold if you want to read fast). Oh, I have a little added surprise at the end of the blog post.

From the press release:

In a new study from the University of Iowa, researchers found that pigeons can categorize and name both natural and humanmade objects–and not just a few objects. These birds categorized 128 photographs into 16 categories, and they did so simultaneously.

Ed Wasserman, UI professor of psychology and corresponding author of the study, says the finding suggests a similarity between how pigeons learn the equivalent of words and the way children do.

“Unlike prior attempts to teach words to primates, dogs, and parrots, we used neither elaborate shaping methods nor social cues,” Wasserman says of the study, published online in the journal Cognition. “And our pigeons were trained on all 16 categories simultaneously, a much closer analog of how children learn words and categories.”

For researchers like Wasserman, who has been studying animal intelligence for decades, this latest experiment is further proof that animals–whether primates, birds, or dogs–are smarter than once presumed and have more to teach scientists.

“It is certainly no simple task to investigate animal cognition; But, as our methods have improved, so too have our understanding and appreciation of animal intelligence,” he says. “Differences between humans and animals must indeed exist: many are already known. But, they may be outnumbered by similarities. Our research on categorization in pigeons suggests that those similarities may even extend to how children learn words.”

Wasserman says the pigeon experiment comes from a project published in 1988 and featured in The New York Times in which UI researchers discovered pigeons could distinguish among four categories of objects.

This time, the UI researchers used a computerized version of the “name game” in which three pigeons were shown 128 black-and-white photos of objects from 16 basic categories: baby, bottle, cake, car, cracker, dog, duck, fish, flower, hat, key, pen, phone, plan, shoe, tree. They then had to peck on one of two different symbols: the correct one for that photo and an incorrect one that was randomly chosen from one of the remaining 15 categories. The pigeons not only succeeded in learning the task, but they reliably transferred the learning to four new photos from each of the 16 categories.

Pigeons have long been known to be smarter than your average bird–or many other animals, for that matter. Among their many talents, pigeons have a “homing instinct” that helps them find their way home from hundreds of miles away, even when blindfolded. They have better eyesight than humans and have been trained by the U. S. Coast Guard to spot orange life jackets of people lost at sea. They carried messages for the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II, saving lives and providing vital strategic information.

UI researchers say their expanded experiment represents the first purely associative animal model that captures an essential ingredient of word learning–the many-to-many mapping between stimuli and responses.

“Ours is a computerized task that can be provided to any animal, it doesn’t have to be pigeons,” says UI psychologist Bob McMurray, another author of the study. “These methods can be used with any type of animal that can interact with a computer screen.”

McMurray says the research shows the mechanisms by which children learn words might not be unique to humans.

“Children are confronted with an immense task of learning thousands of words without a lot of background knowledge to go on,” he says. “For a long time, people thought that such learning is special to humans. What this research shows is that the mechanisms by which children solve this huge problem may be mechanisms that are shared with many species.”

Wasserman acknowledges the recent pigeon study is not a direct analogue of word learning in children and more work needs to be done. Nonetheless, the model used in the study could lead to a better understanding of the associative principles involved in children’s word learning.

“That’s the parallel that we’re pursuing,” he says, “but a single project–however innovative it may be–will not suffice to answer such a provocative question.”

Abstract of the study:

Might there be parallels between category learning in animals and word learning in children? To examine this possibility, we devised a new associative learning technique for teaching pigeons to sort 128 photographs of objects into 16 human language categories. We found that pigeons learned all 16 categories in parallel, they perceived the perceptual coherence of the different object categories, and they generalized their categorization behavior to novel photographs from the training categories. More detailed analyses of the factors that predict trial-by-trial learning implicated a number of factors that may shape learning. First, we found considerable trial-by-trial dependency of pigeons’ categorization responses, consistent with several recent studies that invoke this dependency to claim that humans acquire words via symbolic or inferential mechanisms; this finding suggests that such dependencies may also arise in associative systems. Second, our trial-by-trial analyses divulged seemingly irrelevant aspects of the categorization task, like the spatial location of the report responses, which influenced learning. Third, those trial-by-trial analyses also supported the possibility that learning may be determined both by strengthening correct stimulus–response associations and by weakening incorrect stimulus–response associations. The parallel between all these findings and important aspects of human word learning suggests that associative learning mechanisms may play a much stronger part in complex human behavior than is commonly believed.

This study reminded me of this Sesame Street sketch:



Filed under Education, Research

4 responses to “Do pigeons and children learn the same way?

  1. Pedro, your intro here is perhaps the most astonishing thing I’ve read on your blog (and I’m a regular reader). The “simple” answer to your logical question should be “yes.” The field of Behavior Analysis has spent more than 75 years demonstrating that basic behavioral processes (i.e., “learning”) are consistent across species. This Wasserman study isn’t new in that regard, it just happens to be using “words” as stimuli. Categorization and concept learning in the pigeon have been shown in many, many other studies demonstrating similar patterns of acquisition and equivalence to human studies. I myself conducted a dissertation with human learners replicating a study with pigeons…the resulting data were indistinguishable from those generated by pigeons. I’m a bit disappointed by the suggestion implied in your intro that these findings are anomalous.

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