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.