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Groundbreaking ‘Cognition in Context’ Speaker Series on York’s Two Campuses


In the study of animal behaviour, imposing our own perception of the world around us on other groups just doesn’t work. For example, while we, humans are visually focussed, some animals experience the world through their sense of smell. So if a package of meat is hidden behind a doorway, we won’t be aware of its existence. But a dog or a bear will smell it and know that it’s there, even when the food is completely out of sight. Given that the ‘universe’ of each animal group is so different, the challenge is to find relevant ways to study how their minds work.

It is this challenge that is taken up by the newly created ‘Cognition in Context’ Seminar and Speaker Series, funded by a ‘York University Seminar for Advanced Research’ grant. Co-sponsored by Glendon’s Psychology Department and York’s Cognitive Science, Philosophy and Arts Programs, this project incorporates local seminar meetings and public lectures. The seminar meetings are designed to discuss current published work by visiting academics, each of whom will also hold a public lecture on a related topic.

“We hope to present specialists in the various fields studying animal cognitive capacities”, says Glendon psychology professor Anne Russon, one of the two organizers of this project. These fields encompass computer science, philosophy, psychology and linguistics. Computer scientists design and construct animats - artificial animals - in an attempt to model cognitive capacities, starting with the simplest systems. Philosophers examine theoretical and methodological questions about the nature of other minds and the scientific processes that justify claims about animal minds. Psychologists observe and study animal behaviour, and run experiments to test for certain capabilities and especially the cognitive mechanisms that underlie them. Linguists study animal communicative systems and help to construct and analyze artificial language systems that can be taught to non-human animals to facilitate inter-species communication. Adds Russon, “York University is especially lucky to have interested researchers from these four disciplines, and that is why we are able to propose seminars for advanced research on topics of animal cognition.”

Russon is working together with Kristin Andrews, assistant professor of philosophy and co-ordinator of the Cognitive Science Program on the Keele campus. Andrews’ research interests are in folk psychology, moral psychology, and comparative cognition; Russon is a prominent primatologist who specializes in understanding great ape intelligence and is dedicated to saving orangutans, the world’s red apes. Says Andrews, “While the field of cognitive science is interdisciplinary, too often some of the most exciting aspects of interdisciplinary work fall between the cracks. Instead of thinking of cognitive science as merely a joint study of the mind, [in this speaker series] we endeavour to make cognitive science comparative.” Several other universities have committed to participating in the seminar series. Faculty members and post-doctoral students from York, the University of Toronto, the University of Buffalo and others are listed as regular members.

The ‘Cognition in Context’ Speaker Series is intended to promote the methodology of comparative cognitive science by bringing together philosophers, psychologists, linguists and computer scientists to study the abilities of at least four different species of animals in depth. Participating scholars are expected to bring the tools and background of their own particular discipline to bear on the questions surrounding the cognitive capacities of various animals. Russon and Andrews feel certain that a valuable cross-fertilization will be the result of these searches for both similarities and differences across subjects.

Studying how a scrub jay learns

The first lecture in the series took place on October 27th at Glendon. Dr. Nathan Emery, a professor in the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at Cambridge University (England) presented a talk and seminar with the title “How to Build a Scrub-Jay That Reads Minds”. A University Research Fellow in the Royal Society, Emery is currently working on a project entitled “Social Reasoning: Evolution, Cognition and Neurobiology”. He is a specialist on corvid social intelligence, including caching behaviour, theory of mind and social gaze. Upcoming speakers include Dr. Susan Perry of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA)’s department of anthropology, who will present a lecture on February 2nd , 2007 on “Social learning in wild capuchin monkeys”; Dr. Tetsuro Matsuzawa of the Primate Research Institute of Kyoto University (Japan) will give a talk on March 29th , 2007 on cognitive development in chimpanzees.

This article was submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.

Published on November 16, 2006