Hyper-specificity in Animal Cognition

I’m a fairly unread ignoramus, so when I get to talking science, I do a lot of crawling out on limbs. Let’s see how far I fall from this one.

Some years ago I read a book by Temple Grandin on animal behavior, and how she derives insight into it as an autistic person. One of the ideas is that animals are best understood when we notice their reactions to stimuli can be hyper-specific. A horse might think men in hats are cool, but men in blue hats are nightmarish. A cow could become anxiously fixated on the motion of a denim jacket on a fence, flapping in the breeze.

The other day while toasting some bread this randomly came to me: maybe animals are also hyper-specific in cognitive abilities, and that could be cause for scientists to fail in observing the full extent of their intelligence. There are fundamental aspects of cognition (thinking ability) such as object permanence that are studied by scientists when ranking the abilities of animals. Some degree of object permanence has been demonstrated in some animals, and found lacking in others. But what if the tests are missing important data?

The idea put simply: Animals can have “advanced” types of thought, but for hyper-specific situations. The cat was found to be somewhat deficient in object permanence in a test involving hidden food, but maybe they have much better OP on a different kind of situation – or even with a different kind of food. Maybe they failed the trickiest part of the test with a tasty cat treat, but they would have succeeded with a live scorpion – something they might eat in the wild.

Likewise an animal could have an extremely simple brain, like a clownfish or tarantula, but still be able to perform complex thoughts in a narrow domain. I’ve heard of what can only be described as play behavior in turtles and even sea horses, and that’s usually thought of as the domain of more advanced animals. What could we be missing, because we didn’t catch the test organism in the exact right circumstance?

Forgive me for a moment in tying this subject back to humans – specifically those with cognitive impairment – in the following example. No equivalence is intended, it just demonstrates the point well. I read in an Oliver Sacks book that he had observed a woman with Down’s Syndrome under clinical circumstances and found her to have severe intellectual disability by every tested metric. But then he walked past her in a courtyard when no test was involved, and found her singing and dancing – abilities superior to what would have been expected from the tests alone.

Humans are the most advanced thinking animals on the planet. Even a heavily impaired human can do some amazing things. But maybe non-human animals are a little sharper than we give them credit for. Keep your eyes out for it, and as a good skeptic, think of alternative explanations even if you see something exciting. That’s all.


  1. nickmagerl says

    I had a cat who would often sit in a window overlooking my backyard and watch for cats passing through the yard. He would growl and carry on as long as the other cat was in his sight. As the trespasser moved through the yard it would eventually go out of sight along the side of the house. When this happened my cat would run to the front end of the house on the side where the other cat disappeared and wait for it to appear and continue with the growling. Not sure what this means but it left me with the impression that my cat knew what it was doing.

  2. says

    According to the wikipedia page I linked on object permanence, cats scored OK on that, for an animal, but not as good as dogs. I’ve seen both cats and dogs display some odd ideas about space and time.

    A dog saw a toy go to an inaccessible place on top of a shelf once, and even though he saw the toy come back down right after that, he would occasionally for the rest of his life go to the base of that piece of furniture and look up, imagining there could be a toy up there.

    My cats will try to find a way to reach the cats outside as well, but sometimes in the heat of the moment it looks like they’re genuinely imagining they’ll be able to get out of the room by means of an exit that has never existed. In their heads, are they just thinking – there’s an obstruction here, move around it – and forgetting the boundaries they should be well familiar with?

    Sometimes the ways they’re not very smart are kinda cute.

  3. says

    My partner had a large white donkey gelding for the last 29 years who was pretty smart. He would study gate latches and knots and use his lips to undo them if he could. His memory for tracks and working skills was pretty good too. He’s not dead yet at 30 years of age but now lives in retirement with some nice people in flatter, drier country up north from us.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    One cat I lived with liked to sit on the front porch or the back deck,
    wherever was sunny.
    In winter, after a snowfall, she always made us open one door, then the other.
    She had a way of making us feel that it was our fault that things were the same at both doors.

  5. says

    I read on tumblr about a cat who lived in a house with a circular layout who, after finishing its food, would run the circle to see if there was food in the *other* kitchen. I’ve never seen anything quite like that or yours. Sounds amusing.

  6. kestrel says

    This is an interesting subject to me because I work with animals every single day and have done so for most of my life. I’m no scientist either, I simply have a lot of experience working with different species and trying to get them to do what I would like for them to do – go through a gate, go in the barn to eat etc.

    I think it’s intriguing to try and understand why animals do what they do, to try and understand what motivates them and how they think. To me, this is the closest we will get to communicating with aliens from another planet… I try very hard not to impose my biases based on my own human behavior but it’s difficult. I have to keep reminding myself that their motivations are very different from mine.

    You mention animals noticing if a hat is blue or not… some animals are really observant. They will even notice tiny details down to whether you are wearing a ring or not. Another individual from the same species may not be quite as observant. They vary, just like humans do. However if for example you get a new rain coat, and wear it to do chores… you can be pretty much assured every animal on the place is going to notice that. Strangely enough however they can still tell it’s me – even if I have the hood up and every part of me is covered by it. There are humans who would not be able to recognize me but all the goats can. Pretty amazing.

  7. says

    Thanks for the additional info, kestrel. I feel like my response to every post should be to throw out another barely relevant piece of trivia. Goat eyes have the horizontal shape when constricted, which helps keep the overhead sun from messing up their vision. Horses have that too, and it’s been demonstrated they rotate the eyeball to keep that slit parallel with the horizon. I don’t know if goats do that too.

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