Our research concerns the experimental investigation of cognitive processes in animal behavior, with particular interests in comparing cognition and perception in humans and nonhuman animals. Specific research topics include: conceptual behavior, visual pattern recognition, short-term memory, and causal perception.
Pigeons are a favorite animal to study in the laboratory. Pigeons have excellent visual acuity, color vision, and visual memory, all of which rival or even surpass these abilities in highly visual primates. Birds are also an important taxonomic group to compare with mammals, the other major group of warm-blooded, highly mobile, visually oriented animals. Although a large portion of the avian central nervous system is devoted to visual processing, the bird brain is just a fraction of the size of our own. It is this unique combination of high visual competence and small size that makes birds so central to our understanding of the basic mechanisms of visual categorization.
Our primate research is conducted in collaboration with Joël Fagot, in Marseille, France. There, 30 baboons live in a social group in an open area. Comparisons of pigeons’ and baboons’ performance in a variety of tasks allows us to examine phylogenetic similarities and differences in categorization and other cognitive capacities.
The comparison of animals’ performance in categorization and cognition tasks with the performance of humans on the very same tasks helps us establish similarities and differences among species. Our experimental approach—in which the performance of pigeons, baboons and humans is compared—will help us discover the most basic mechanisms of cognition that are common across species. At the same time, we will be able to shed light on how the behaviors of different species may have diverged through evolution.