Testing The Cognitive Capacities of Animals
Anthony A. Wright University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
Comparative animal cognition often involves the inability as well as the ability of animals to perform cognitive tasks. The question and the theme of this chapter is, are these inabilities a limitation of the capacity of the animal or are they a limitation of the experimenter's ability to design the tests such that the animals can express their ability (e.g., to learn abstract concepts)? There are many things that each animal species (including humans) cannot do; each species has its limitations. But when cognitive capacities are considered, we should be asking whether or not animals can perform such cognitive tasks under conditions best suited for them to reveal these capacities.
We as experimenters spend a great deal of time constructing elaborate explanatory mechanisms (e.g., encoding, storage, retrieval, and rehearsal) without questioning the basic task itself. We stick our animals in a Skinner Box that is basically of a half-century old design. The stimuli we use are, more often than not, ones chosen by engineers for stimulus projector units to be sold with the Skinner Boxes. And not all too infrequently we go into the laboratory and maybe ask, "Let's see, what experiment can I do with this apparatus?" The apparatus is driving our research.
What we need to do is to continuously question the procedures we use with regards to this question of suitability and continuously refine our procedures. Sometimes refinements will be simply an optimization of a parameter (e.g., stimulus exposure duration or retention interval). Other times the apparatus may require a complete redesign and an entirely different procedure. This question of suitability only becomes an issue when the requirements of the experiment taxes the subjects' abilities; and such is the nature of many animal cognition