Who’s a Smart Boy?

January 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm 1 comment

You’ve seen the thought go through your dog’s head “Should I chase the squirrel and risk Mom’s wrath – or ignore the evil rodent invader and get a liver treat?”   Frustrating as it can be, your dog’s indecision may represent more than simple disobedience. It could be evidence that he’s self-aware.

An article recently published in LiveScience presents some thought-provoking ideas about what may be going on inside a dog’s head:

J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo notes that humans are capable of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. “Humans can feel uncertainty. They know when they do not know or remember, and they respond well to uncertainty by deferring response and seeking information,” Smith writes in the September issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

And accumulating research, he says, suggests metacognition is not unique to humans.

“The idea is that some minds have a cognitive executive that can look in on the human’s or the animal’s thoughts and problem-solving and look at how its going and see if there are ways to guide it or if behavior needs to pause while more information is obtained,” Smith told LiveScience.

Metacognition is thinking about thinking. Some believe that the ability to reflect on one’s own mental processes is unique to sapient species and some believe it is a hallmark of the capacity for sapience. A sapient being is capable of rational thought and action and Homo sapiens defines himself by being sapient – but there’s a lot of controversy about which non-human animals are sapient.

Studying metacognition in Homo sapiens is relatively simple because we can explain our feelings to each other, but scientists have to get a lot more creative to study these processes in animals.  Smith is approaching the problem by studying uncertainty monitoring.  As humans we can (usually) recognize when we don’t know something.  We have the capacity to be consciously uncertain.  Uncertainty monitoring is well-recognized as a form of metacognition, or thinking about thinking.  Smith believes that evidence that some animals are capable of uncertainty monitoring presents strong evidence for metacognition in animals.

But it’s not the only evidence. Or even, IMO, the most interesting evidence.

While children engage in pretend play, they need to understand their own thoughts and beliefs along with their playmates thoughts and beliefs. Play involves pretense, and pretense implies intention.

Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of psychology at Barnard College and author of Inside of a Dog a book about how dogs perceive the world (a book I highly recommend).   Her 2002 dissertation; The behaviors of theories of mind, and A case study of dogs at play proposes that play “is a good place to look for mindful behavior in animals”. Horowitz writes:

Social play is a tractable, evolved behavior. It is a coordinated, cooperative dance that seems to require negotiation, flexible communication skills, and some ability to distinguish reality from pretend. The study of play has blossomed in the last century, though it was once thought to be unworthy of analysis. While at one time educators considered play to be trivial, “developmentally irrelevant”, now play behavior is strongly implicated in human development: in the emergence of tool use, problem solving, complex thought, and language.

The highly flexible and cooperative nature of play may provide a richer and more interesting field to study metacognition in animals than indecision does - but play is also a lot more difficult to quantify than uncertainty is, and that, of course, makes it more complicated to study.

Social pretend play has been said to require the ability to understand both what reality is and also when it is breached: the ability to distinguish appearance from reality. These proponents suggest that participants must recognize what counts as play, must in some sense know what is real and what is not, and must have the ability to move in and out of these states. Markers within play ensure that the players continue to understand that it is only pretend. These include “attenuation or exaggeration” of play behaviors that also might appear outside of play, and expressions such as smiling and laughter.

When we play we purposefully put behavior out of context. Doing this requires imagination, creativity and complex communication skills. Dogs not only communicate with each other about what is and is not play behavior; they also demonstrate the ability to understand whether or not their playmates are paying attention. Dogs display wonderfully sophisticated play behavior – they take turns and engage in self-handicapping; behaviors that appear to require them to imagine what their playmates are thinking.

It’s wonderful that something as poetic and beautiful as play may help us understand metacognition in animals. Because of their uniquely strong tie to Home sapiens, dogs may be the ideal animal species to study the connections between sapience and play. According to an article in the March 2000 issue of New Scientist:

Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado has studied how dogs, wolves and coyotes play. “All animals learn certain codes of conduct about their own species’ morality through play,” he says. “I think dogs learn codes of conduct from humans through dog/human play.” They learn the ground rules for acceptable behaviour, such as how hard they can bite without harming. And, like any animal, when dogs play, they hone the behaviours they will need elsewhere.

There is little research into the evolutionary effects of such interactions between dogs and humans, but Bekoff suspects that they have enriched the mental life of dogs. A study in his lab reveals that playful interactions between puppies are much more varied than those between young wolves or coyotes. He thinks dogs have evolved more varied forms of behaviour because of the sophisticated games people play with their pets and the selection for dogs that are good at such games. “It would feed over into other areas,” says Bekoff. “In general ways it would make the dog more cognitive.”

Living and playing with us may have made dogs smarter. Perhaps it made us a little smarter too…

Entry filed under: behavior science, dogs. Tags: , .

Media Treats Good Luck With That

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Rob McMillin  |  January 30, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    I have wondered whether dogs have been simultaneous beneficiaries of our relationship with fire and cooking; there has been some evidence that cooking has allowed our guts to get smaller. Everything I’ve read, though, seems to indicate dogs have gotten dumber since their days as wild canids.

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