February 19, 2008
4 Unique Human Cognitive Abilities?

Do humans really have unique modes of thought? Some of the ways which humans were believed to be unique in intellectual abilities have since been found present in other species. But a professor at Harvard believes other methods of thinking are uniquely human.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Shedding new light on the great cognitive rift between humans and animals, a Harvard University scientist has synthesized four key differences in human and animal cognition into a hypothesis on what exactly differentiates human and animal thought.

In new work presented for the first time at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Marc Hauser, professor of psychology, biological anthropology, and organismic and evolutionary biology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, presents his theory of “humaniqueness,” the factors that make human cognition special. He presents four evolved mechanisms of human thought that give us access to a wide range of information and the ability to find creative solutions to new problems based on access to this information.

“Animals share many of the building blocks that comprise human thought, but paradoxically, there is a great cognitive gap between humans and animals,” Hauser says. “By looking at key differences in cognitive abilities, we find the elements of human cognition that are uniquely human. The challenge is to identify which systems animals and human share, which are unique, and how these systems interact and interface with one another.”

Recently, scientists have found that some animals think in ways that were once considered unique to humans: For example, some animals have episodic memory, or non-linguistic mathematical ability, or the capacity to navigate using landmarks. However, despite these apparent similarities, a cognitive gulf remains between humans and animals.

Do these really seem like uniquely human intellectual abilities?

Hauser presents four distinguishing ingredients of human cognition, and shows how these capacities make human thought unique. These four novel components of human thought are the ability to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding; to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation; to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input; and to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.

Earlier scientists viewed the ability to use tools as a unique capacity of humans, but it has since been shown that many animals, such as chimpanzees, also use simple tools. Differences do arise, however, in how humans use tools as compared to other animals. While animal tools have one function, no other animals combine materials to create a tool with multiple functions. In fact, Hauser says, this ability to combine materials and thought processes is one of the key computations that distinguish human thought.

How certain can we be that no other animal creates tools with multiple functions?

The advantage that humans have with "floodlight" cognition seems one of degree.

According to Hauser, animals have “laser beam” intelligence, in which a specific solution is used to solve a specific problem. But these solutions cannot be applied to new situations or to solve different kinds of problem. In contrast, humans have “floodlight” cognition, allowing us to use thought processes in new ways and to apply the solution of one problem to another situation. While animals can transfer across systems, this is only done in a limited way.

“For human beings, these key cognitive abilities may have opened up other avenues of evolution that other animals have not exploited, and this evolution of the brain is the foundation upon which cultural evolution has been built,” says Hauser.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 February 19 09:54 PM  Brain Evolution

Vincent said at February 20, 2008 6:44 AM:

What surprises me is the novelty of the research. One would think we would have figured this out at least a decade ago.

Fly said at February 20, 2008 11:47 AM:

Crow Makes Tool by Bending Wire to Snag Food:


Bob Badour said at February 20, 2008 2:03 PM:


That's interesting. You posted the link not just because it is an animal making a tool but because it shows "floodlight" thinking too. The crow generalized from other knowledge to make the wire hook.

Fly said at February 20, 2008 3:46 PM:

Bob, yes.

Here is a bird that can answer questions involving abstract concepts and symbols.

African Grey Parrot Is First Bird To Comprehend Numerical Concept Akin To Zero:

Engineer-Poet said at February 20, 2008 6:02 PM:

Was the first bird... Alex's obituary wasn't all that long ago, dead of unknown causes in his sleep at age 32.

Bob Badour said at February 20, 2008 6:19 PM:

Interesting. I found the link to teaching autistic children using the same methods used to teach the parrots equally interesting.

Jason Malloy said at February 22, 2008 2:59 AM:

"...to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation"

This is not unique to humans. All kinds of animals can do cross-modal transfer, where a rule abstracted from one sense (say visual) can be transfered to solve a problem in a different sensory domain (auditory, tactile...).

A paper would be nice. I don't know if I'm impressed with a theory that makes it a problem of kind and not degree. Monkeys and chimps are very intelligent, and virtually all the basic components seem to be right there.

Steven Pinker and Marc Hauser have already been through a similar debate for human language ability.


Scott said at February 22, 2008 1:33 PM:

"According to Hauser, animals have “laser beam” intelligence, in which a specific solution is used to solve a specific problem. But these solutions cannot be applied to new situations or to solve different kinds of problem."

I can refute that in 2 seconds. My dog learned long ago that he could use his nose to push open a partially closed door - a skill that I presume most dogs posess. He then took that problem solving skill and applied it to other swing doors throughout the house and even sliding doors (shoving it to the side instead of pushing it as in the case of a swinging door).

Also, my dog knows how to beg when he wants food, attention, to be let out, or to go on a walk - those are all different situations, different problems, and he is using the same skill (begging) to solve problems in multiple scenarios.

I think the most important difference between humans and animals is in complex language. Complex language lets us pass down our knowledge and skills to the next generation, which then in turn benefits from and builds upon our past experience. Animals are stuck in a perpetual loop, starting from square one with each generation. They haven't collaborated or communicated with one another to advance their knowledge of the universe or their skills in the least.

Bob Badour said at February 22, 2008 7:19 PM:

I watched my dog conduct a systematic experiment shortly after I introduced her to a spill-proof camping bowl.

She accidentally knocked it on its side. When she righted it, she was clearly surprised to discover water still in it. She obviously understood the concept of "upturned bowls have no water." She then tipped the bowl back onto its side with her nose and righted it again to check whether it still had water.

She then tipped the bowl all the way over upside down and then all the way back again. She took a drink of the water still in the bowl, looked at the bowl for a moment, and went back to playing.

With systematic experimentation, one has the basis of the scientific method. I have difficulty believing human intelligence is different in kind.

Herodotus said at February 24, 2008 5:25 PM:

Humans are more like animals when they are kids and teenagers. Not until they're adults does the brain get the higher skills. Read the latest SciAm print edition on "white matter".

Teenagers don't have myelinated forebrains, so their judgement is shot. The frontal lobes don't reach maturation until age 25 to 30. I tried to explain that to a kid who runs a future-oriented blog, and he understandably blew it off as nonsensical.

Here's the critically important part: myelination of different parts of the brain seems to correspond to "critical periods" of development for different skills, like language, music, math, and such. Late myelination of the frontal lobes corresponds to the acquisition of wisdom in decision making.

Too bad we have to make a lot of important decisions about our lives before we're wise enough to optimize them.

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