I spent some time last week with my niece and nephew in Kerala and whenever they were able to get away from the evil clutches of Dora (the explorer) I observed them playing. It is becoming increasingly difficult to compete with TV when wanting to interact with children. And socially awkward aunt who is also unsurprisingly great with kids (read sarcasm) acknowledges this as a herculean task. The colourful rings of a child-friendly Tower of Hanoi lie forlorn as some informative lady sings ABC on the ‘idiot box’. Yet somehow my 2 year old niece is still being amused by the Malayalam version of peek-a-boo called “Oliche-kande” in the vernacular translating to Hid-found. It requires only two things 1) something to obstruct her view of your face and 2) your face. And as I watched her giggle at what seems like the universal way to amuse most children through time, I was reminded of the ‘What the fluff’ compilations that were doing the rounds on social media recently. It involved pet owners standing in front of their pet, throwing a towel over themselves or their pet and the pet watches in confusion as their master vanishes, probably having rushed and hidden behind a door or a bed. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as we see the pet searching for the owner. The more frantic the search, the better. Our affection for animals doing literally anything in videos circulating on the internet is phenomenon unto itself and will take a longer time to unpack but animal perception and related abilities are crucial to understanding cognition (And makes for a great dinnertime conversation if Dora the explorer is not going on).
What we see here is animals displaying Object Permanence. It is the ability to know that objects exist even if they have disappeared from view. That is why the pets are confused and searching. The owner was just there and ought to be around. Object permanence was first described as a sensorimotor developmental stage in human children starting at 8-12 months, by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. But the progression of the ability is such: at first when an object is first in one place and then in another, the child will search for it in the first location. Next phase, they can look for the object and trace its location if the location changes have happened in plain view but not otherwise [Although processing time for any information is a factor. Most adults are dumbfounded by the roadside tricks and may have lost time and money on shell games which depends on tracking the motion of cups and a sleight of hand]. Last stage is where they search for objects sequentially in multiple locations.
Many animals including cats, dogs, dolphins, goats, birds of the crow family, monkeys and non-human apes have been tested on their ability to track objects when they are displaced although their ability to trace something when it changes location many times in a short time interval is variable according to species, individual and context. They would require object permanence to know where they stash food, where predators or prey might be if they have detected them among others. Animals may also be able to use their sense of smell or echolocation or social cues to figure out where the object went and prior experience with the location or the set-up may all be confounding factors, or sometimes animals just don’t want to do something, or do something they wouldn’t normally do because of the incentive they receive. All these could lead to a biased result.
However, over various controlled studies, all slight variations of Piagetian experiments have led to the insights we have about our furry or feathery friends at home and our wild cousins with regards to object permanence. Our common pets, dogs have been domesticated for a while now and are particularly attuned to human non-verbal cues and may use them to follow instruction but thanks to domestication, their dependence on us is higher and they may be less self-sufficient in finding food and keeping track of where things are, making use of their nose and our help for their daily tasks. In fact most pets like toddlers suffer separation anxiety because they have object permanence.
In wild animals, species is important as is context. Where are they from? Are they solitary or social? What are their immediate pressures (food, prey/predator, shelter, mate) that could lead them to develop different types of strategy which may require specific skillsets. Most species have survived in the wild because somehow the strategy they use has been developed and naturally selected for. It is best suited to them in this time and space where they are. They will perish unless they change with changing context. Similar species living in vey different habitats thus can fare differently on such tests and animals that aren’t as closely related for eg- elephants, corvids and apes do similarly well. We cannot really compare different animals on a common, generic scale to conclude on their “intelligence”. [Because that requires defining “intelligence” which is subjective and contextual depending on the species, though we like being anthropocentric and using ourselves as the apex with which to compare everything with, intelligence in humans too is complicated and subjective] We can however use them to learn how such skills evolved and whether things like brain to body size have anything to do with it.
This also raises interesting questions like how animals might perceive sudden versus slow death of a known individual. Are we ignoring similar phenomena in the animals that aren’t considered stereotypically ‘cute’ because their responses are not as obvious as the raised eyebrows and crazy neck movements that remind us of ourselves?
Our brain is a beautiful organ but a lot of our actions are based on sensory cues, prior experience and context, processing all of which might take longer than necessary to win against those deceiving us, including our own brain. So watching our precious pets not throw in the towel after we have disappeared behind one is heartening and enlightening at the same time.
References and bonus links:
- Do dogs understand object permanence?
- Where’s the cookie? The ability of monkeys to track object transpositions doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-018-1195-x
- What Do Dogs know about Hidden Objects? doi: 1016/j.beproc.2009.03.018
- A really simple summary and critique of Piaget’s theory on object permanence
- Dogs- what the fluff?
- Cats- What the fluff?
- The actual towers of Hanoi game