Speaker series explores animal cognition

In the study of animal behaviour, imposing our own perception of the world on non-human species just doesn’t work. For example, while we humans are visually focused, some animals experience the world through their sense of smell. So if a package of meat is hidden behind a doorway, we won’t be aware of its existence. But a dog or a bear will smell it and know that it’s there, even when the food is completely out of sight. Given that the universe of each animal group is so different, the challenge is to find relevant ways to study how their minds work.

This challenge is addressed in the newly created Cognition in Context Seminar and Speaker Series. Researchers in computer science, philosophy, psychology and linguistics from Cambridge, University of California Los Angeles and Kyoto are giving seminars and public lectures on their related research.

“York University is especially lucky to have interested researchers from these four disciplines, and that is why we are able to propose seminars for advanced research on topics of animal cognition,” says Glendon psychology Prof. Anne Russon (right).

Russon is coordinating the speaker series with Kristin Andrews (left), philosophy professor and coordinator of the Cognitive Science Program, Faculty of Arts. Russon is a prominent primatologist who specializes in understanding great ape intelligence and is dedicated to saving orangutans, the world’s red apes. Andrews is interested in folk psychology, moral psychology and comparative cognition.

By focusing on various disciplines they hope to spark cross-fertilization of ideas and methodologies. Computer scientists design and construct animats (artificial animals) in an attempt to model cognitive capacities, starting with the simplest systems. Philosophers examine theoretical and methodological questions about the nature of, and scientific processes used to justify claims about, animal minds. Psychologists observe and study animal behaviour, running experiments to test for cognitive capabilities and mechanisms. Linguists study animal communicative systems, and construct and analyze artificial language systems that can be taught to non-human species.

“While the field of cognitive science is interdisciplinary, too often some of the most exciting aspects of interdisciplinary work fall between the cracks,” says Andrews. “Instead of thinking of cognitive science as merely a joint study of the mind, in this speaker series we endeavour to make cognitive science comparative.”

Left: A scrub-jay, subject of the series first talk

Interdisciplinary seminar members come from local universities, including Guelph, Waterloo, York, McMaster and the University of Toronto.

The first lecture in the series took place on Oct. 27 at Glendon. Nathan Emery, a professor of animal behaviour at Cambridge University in England, gave a seminar and a talk, How to Build a Scrub-Jay That Reads Minds. He is a specialist on corvid social intelligence, including caching behaviour, theory of mind and social gaze.

Upcoming speakers include:

  • anthropologist Susan Perry of the University of California in Los Angeles on social learning in wild capuchin monkeys, Feb. 2;
  • primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University (Japan) on cognitive development in chimpanzees, March 29.

The Cognition in Context series is funded by a York University Seminar for Advanced Research grant. It is co-sponsored by Glendon’s Psychology Department ; the Philosophy Department’s Cognitive Science Program, Faculty of Arts; and Calumet College.

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.