Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rodent tool use supports cognitive resources hypothesis

Tool-Use Training in a Species of Rodent: The Emergence of an Optimal Motor Strategy and Functional Understanding (Okanoya et al)

In an article that even received a writeup in the New York Times, the authors cited above present their results from training degus (Octodon degus) to use rakes. Specifically, the researchers wanted to implement an experimental design that would easily extend to studying any changes in the degus' brains that resulted from the training. A variety of other animals are able to use tools, though only a few studies have documented changes in brain activity that correlate with such ability. Interestingly, many researchers have hypothesized that proximal phylogenetic relationships with humans (the most complex of tool-using animals) influence intelligence (measured to some degree by the ability to use tools). In comparing their results from working with degus with a similar experiment done with monkeys, Okanoya and the other researchers in the above study propose that socio-ecological factors may be involved. While brain complexity is certainly not unrelated to common ancestry, another interesting proposal here is worthy of direct quotation: "These observations suggest that tool use ... may represent a standardized set of cognitive skills necessary for general implementation." Conceptual change and education researchers working within the domain of cognitive psychology have, for many years, developed the idea of resources - fundamental units of cognition that are used to construct concepts. It would appear from the research on degus that cognitive resources may be supported by observations of conceptual development in other animal models. Furthermore, and excitingly to me and others hoping to better model the brain-mind relationship, this research further supports the notion that cognitive modeling should be, as much as possible, reflective of what we know about the brain.

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