NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

I *think*, therefore I am... [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

Tonight's blog will be brief due to other commitments,  thus the current topic - thought vs. intelligence, will span two successive blogs.

Extremely intangible concepts, we assess thought and intelligence primarily by their differences:  thought is largely a function of the executive information processing by frontal lobe, while what we measure as *intelligence*is largely a function of the association and memory.

For example, we clearly understand that humans have both the capacity for thought, as well as for intelligence, but what of animals?  For the moment we skip over humanity's closest cousins, the Great Apes - and start with lab rats.

All kidding aside, rats show limited signs of intelligence:  they can clearly solve puzzles on the basis of memory, but do they have thoughts? Probably not, and their intelligence is again, largely a result of memory and what is called operant training.

Operant training is how rats run mazes, dogs and horses learn tricks, and those sea lions and otters in the Seaworld show can do all of the tricks that *appear* to represent intelligence.  First, you train an animal that a particular sound or light means a reward.  The term for this is "magazine" training (for the food dispenser magazine in the famous "skinner box").  Next, the animal is trained that they must perform a particular response, to get the click that means reward.  Next the animal learns to perform yet another response, to get the signal for the first response, to get the click of the magazine which means reward.  You can keep this up - a process called "operant chaining" - until the animal can smoothly run up a ramp, ring a bell, run down steps, jump through a window, and pull a lost child from an abandoned well ("Well, done, Lassie!").

Intelligence?  yes, of a limited sort.  Thought?  No.  In fact, we should be cautioned *not* to project human thoughts and motivations onto animals - after all, rats and mice can learn. ants and honeybees cooperate, and many animals form family groups.  Behaviors do not equate to thoughts. 

So, how about dolphins?  They are intelligent, right?  yes.  They show the ability to learn - really fast, and they *initiate* behaviors that are not necessarily trained.  They also show evidence of having a language.  So do they *think*?  Maybe.  They appear to have behaviors that are not strictly motivated by their own needs, and behave toward each other in manners reminiscent of how humans act.  But again, be wary of projecting human patterns onto animals.  We don't *know* what or how dolphins think, and won't until we can find a way to let them tell us!

That brings us to primates - monkeys, great apes and humans - and here I'm going to cheat.  IN  honor of the May television season, I leave you with a cliff-hanger: 

To be continued in the next blog!

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