What Can Bird Brains Teach Us About Human Cognition? Plenty.
Pigeons have a storied history in psychology. Famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner, PhD, used pigeons to demonstrate his theory of operant conditioning. In the 1960s and 1970s, Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, PhD, devised a classic set of experiments to show that pigeons could classify objects into categories, such as trees or people.
While that latter work was groundbreaking at the time, something about it bothered Edward Wasserman, PhD, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Iowa. "We don’t form categories like ‘people versus non-people’ or ‘flower versus non-flower.’ That’s not how we carve up the world," he says. "As clever as his work was, it didn’t capture what categorization is all about."
So, Wasserman decided to take Herrnstein’s work further. He finished his PhD at Indiana University in 1972. After eight months as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sussex, he accepted a position at the University of Iowa and set up his Comparative Cognition Laboratory. He’s housed pigeons there ever since. In addition to categorization, he and his team have explored a range of other cognitive processes, including memory, judgment, task switching and visual processing, in pigeons, people and many other species. Pigeons, Wasserman has shown, can do a lot of what humans can do, including learning many new object categories simultaneously, selectively ignoring irrelevant information and learning to recognize human emotional expressions, even on unfamiliar faces (Journal of Vision, 2011).
Wasserman’s team currently includes a PhD research scientist, a part-time lab technician, two graduate students, five undergraduates and a rotating pool of collaborators all over the world. It’s a busy and productive group, says former student Fabian Soto, PhD, now an assistant professor of psychology at Florida International University (and recipient of the 2016 APA Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions to Psychology). "We were running experiments day and night, and the range of topics was amazing," he says.