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Prof finds cognition breakthrough in baboons and pigeons

BY GEOFF WARING | FEBRUARY 19, 2009 7:44 AM

That monkey at the zoo or those pigeons on the street may be a lot smarter than scientists originally believed, according to a recent study by a UI professor.

Ed Wasserman, a professor of psychology, recently discovered baboons and pigeons are capable of higher-level cognition.

“I think it’s amazing what these animals with a brain no larger than the tip of a thumb can do,” UI graduate student Dan Brooks said, who worked on the study with Wasserman.

Wasserman said he has been interested in the way animals think since he was a boy. His appreciation for animals is apparent in his office — pictures of baboons and birds adorn his walls and a beanie-baby monkey named “Cheeks” sits on his desk.

“I’ve always loved animals and always wondered how smart they are,” Wasserman said.
His research started in 1995 when he and Bob Cook of Tufts University taught high-order abstraction, or the distinction between objects, to pigeons. Roughly five years later, they added baboons to their experiment.

In order to diagnose the animals with a higher-level of cognition, Wasserman and Brooks developed several tests for the baboons and pigeons. The two created an experiment in which they displayed objects for the animals to distinguish between.

“What we did was to see whether or not they could tell between a set of objects and thus see the difference between the two,” Wasserman said.

Not only could the animals distinguish the objects from each other, but they were able to categorize them, Wasserman added.

The duo’s findings have been publicized in newspapers and magazines across the country.

UI psychology Professor Mark Blumberg is happy with the acknowledgment his colleague has received.

“Dr. Wasserman is one of the world leaders in the area and deserves all the recognition he is getting,” Blumberg said. “He is a tremendous scholar and we’re very happy to have him here.”

Brooks studied psychology at Tufts University in Massachusetts as an undergraduate before coming to the UI three years ago to study under Wasserman. He worked primarily with pigeons throughout the study.

“It has been a fantastic relationship. Dr. Wasserman is a great advisor and colleague,” Brooks said. “He lets me know when my ideas are good and when my ideas are stupid.”

Wasserman, after “37 fun-filled years” at the UI, plans to continue his research.

“I think there is a thirst and a hunger among the public to learn more about animal intelligence,” he said. “It’s one thing to tell cute stories; it’s another to re-identify laws and controlling variables — and that’s what we try to do.”

As a result of his discoveries, Wasserman said he feels people may begin to realize that humans are not the only intelligent beings on Earth.

“If we see ourselves as part of nature, we may get ourselves out of the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into,” he said.


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