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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Animal models for the study of learning

It's very weird but when I mention that  I do study the learning process, people think I know a lot about education. In different forums, I have explained that school learning is a fully human model, and for some strange reason, we are the only specie that thinks we must spend in a school the greater part of our lives, answering tests about things that many times we won't use anywhere else.

The rest of the species, provide modeling only to more basic skills, usually in the contexts through games, and the main tests  will be surviving in the hostile world, and have offspring in order to help their species. In some cases, creautures will make adaptive changes from the needs of the environment, as an example, I can mention the European birds who have learned to measure road speed limits, to determine its speed and successfully cross roads (Legagneux, & Ducatez, 2013). No need to say that a  miscalculation let them see their brains on the windshields of cars that cross at a higher rate.

With a large number of examples presented by other species, and understanding that learning can be defined as the ability to respond to the environment, modifying behaviors depending on the needs, in my search for answers on how learning develops, I began to use plant and animal models, because once I am clear that the learning takes place in the brain, the next question was: how hell did it get there?.

The big problem following  the line of the analysis of neuroscience, it’s the difficulty to explain a system as complex as the brain. On the basis of the principle in science that it is not possible to explain something from itself (Russell’s paradox), then is complicated explain many of the brain principles only with the accumulation of data obtained from neuroimaging studies, since it is known that our connectome is modified and it is also a custom process.

Hence, as you know, I've used protein models (Dzib Goodin, 2013) and here I present an animal model.

One of the greatest challenges of understanding complex models is to make them simple, it seems to me that the problem of the study of the brain is the cultural human creates from its own evolution, same that observed in other species.

The majority of studies, including the classic Pavlovian studies, have used dogs or lab rats. The problem of canine cognition is that it develops with greater complexity through domestication. Some studies suggest that higher level of domestication, greater social and cognitive functioning of the  domestic dog (Canis familiaris), in this sense social competence as notion evolutionary guarantees social competence development (Miklós, & Topal, 2013;) Cook, 2013), but this was exactly the component that I wished to avoid in my research.
The main problem to understand the complexity or diverses forms of cognition called Advanced and compared among species for studies of evolution, is to considered the computational neural mechanisms that may be involved, and identify the genetic changes that are needed to mediate changes in cognitive functions (Green, McCormick, 2013; Heyes, 2012).

As explained Chittka, Rossiter, Skorupski and Fernando (2012), the same cognitive capacity could be mediated by different neural circuits in different species, with a relationship between routines of behavior and its neural implementations. By what the comparative behavior research must be complemented with a bottom-up approach in which neurobiological analyses and molecular allow to observe the genetic and neural bases that limit the cognitive variation (Dickinson, 2012). This idea made me renounce the canine models.

However, when I moved to Chicago several years ago, I found several species, almost wild that allowed me to make them my models of cognitive resources, even if they have an inherited component, they are capable of modifying behavior through experience, which facilitates the recombination of the elements of an existing behavioral repertoire, and can thus see the innovation. 

This advantage, must be taken  with some reservations, as Shanahan (2012) explains,  on a system which massively includes many connections anatomically distributed neuronal environment, is not easy to know how sequences of responses are connected, so I began to observe other natural models.

It is true that in the great Darwinian struggle for existence, all the species are faced with the problems posed by varying environments, either the search and food processing, recognition and attraction of potential mates, avoid predators, competition between rivals or navigation back to the herd or nesting sites and that the mental processes by which different species deal with these problems are variedIt is clear that all animals share the fundamental problem of having to deal with the enormous amount of information in the environment, much of which is likely to be irrelevant to the task at hand. The first step, therefore, is to try to sift through the mass of data and attend what can inform decision making of adaptation. After acquiring the relevant data, animals can then benefit from establishing how the different pieces of information relate to each other.

In complex environments, it may be advantageous not only take into account statistical co-occurrence of different stimuli, but also to extract general rules, so it is possible to act flexibly and solve a variety of problems in different contexts.

This allows to believe that some animal species can also form mental representations or models of the way the world works. These internal representations can be used to reason about the appropriateness of actions or scenarios, based on alternative its probable outcome expectations, thus guiding the behaviour of the individual. Thus, for example, an animal with a mental representation of the action of gravity on objects could use it to reason that food is going to fall out of his reach when it is pressed toward a precipice. The possibility that animals can employ this human reasoning has puzzled observers over the centuries (Thornton, Clayton and Grozinski, 2012).

It is then that I decide to watch the squirrels especially those known as Fox Squirrel and Chipmunks which is common in the suburbs of Chicago. Both are small rodents of the Sciuridae family. These rodents live virtually worldwide, except for Australia, which allows to observe its capacity of adaptation to the environment. Both species live in virtually natural environments, whose main predators are hawks, and owls. 

Their natural diet is based on acorns and fruit of the trees of the region, but that with the arrival of the human species to their environment, they learned to eat corn and various seeds that neighbors provide freely as food for the birds.

It is thus that the trough of the birds was what attracted them, it is curious that all bird feeders have a legend: squirrels proof, which remainds me the objects that presumed to be child-resistant (remember that neither squirrels nor babies know to read).

Their mission, if they  want  to eat some seeds, is to climb up to the balcony 6.8 foot from the ground, in the case of squirrels, have a pine tree near that they use as a trampoline, they have the ability to climb trees without problem and jumping from branch to branch. 

In contrast, chipmunks, do not usually climb to trees, so they use their small claws to climb by wood and climb up to where the food is.

Initially both species were very scary, seems an key issue to adaptation and issuance of behaviors is the confidence (the same is observed with children with learning difficulties), This is because they can be food of predators so it’s very important to behave thinking their environments, and it’s easy to see they feel really scare about rapid movements, principle shared by humans since we are easy prey in hostile environments so that the observation requires they feeling in confidence to allow me to take photographs and watch them.

The next aspect is in general they do not have designed new behaviors that they use those preset systematically looking for that they are as effective as possible, creating adaptive behaviors to the middle.

Step one was to separate the squirrels of the birds. Those who think that birds are helpless before the squirrels are wrong. On two occasions I have seen attacks of birds to squirrels, given this, it gives the impression that adjusted schedules, squirrels can eat the birds in the morning and afternoon and feeder belongs to them during the day. It is a very interesting Pact of non-aggression.

Their diet changed fruits for seeds, specially corn, oats, rice and sunflower, same which is its maximum delicacy. Despite this, they did not affect their predisposition to store food, burying it in pots or on the yard, same as at times it flowed and if they smell the sunflower seeds, they do not prevent unearth them, so I said goodbye to a garden with sunflowers.

In the interest of keeping separate the species, I decided to use special bowls, same that they broke on two occasions, but in a couple of days they learned that they could eat of it, and even allowed to share it with the birds at the established times.

When there was no food in the feeder or bowl, they learned to beg for it, standing at front of the kitchen window at the time they know that I'm around, and who  would deny  something to this beauty?.

Both species hibernate, so during the first winter, which also was the classic winter in the Midwest in the United States with snow from early December until may, only squirrels occasionally ventured out of the burrows, but the two following winters, knowing that there is a permanent food in feeders, they  broke their habits and sent the youngers in search of food, even at the expense of both  hawks and owls can see them easier running on the whiteness of the snow, and no leaves on the branches of trees to protect them. Their meal schedules were modified and were limited to no more than 20 minutes at noon.

As soon as the winter gave truce, even older squirrels came out to ask for food, in this case, is not a sick squirrel, but  a squirrel that remained in hibernation and suffered from alopecy for a couple of weeks.

Achieved their confidence and clearly that accepting the food place, whose sole variation was the feeder or bowl, made one more change, their type of feeder was changed by one swearing to be squirrel-proof. It was intended to observe the behavior before the food that would not be easy to obtain. However, using the answers used in other environments, this specimen emulating Tom Cruise in mission impossible, managed to prove that Adaptive responses do not require departmental tests.

Chipmunks had always been in the vicinity, but squirrels had lousy food habits, ate and at the same time they pour food everywhere, this behavior is a way to share with other squirrels who are unable to climb to the balcony, it’s a kind of social support, sharing the treasure. 

This was not a problem, until we discovered a mouse near the house, the food was being sharing by the own squirrels, birds, rabbits, chipmunks and mice, making our environment in a perfect space so the hawks and owls would have food, don't forget that the environment continues to be hostile to them. From one year to another was notorious the increase in the population of hawks and owls and the decrease in the population of rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks.

Watching this, I change the bowl and the feeder by a transparent box that would allow them to eat in it without throwing the food everywhere.

Once installed the box, the squirrels took a couple of weeks in approach, being a closed environment, they understood this as a trap. Little by little they came until one entered, but with the sound of the camera it ran out. It returned a few hours and tried again, so I decided to avoid the camera to gain confidence.

It was clear that the chipmunks had no need to go up to the balcony to then, they collected the food that the squirrels and birds poured, but when this restaurant was closed, they had to find food, climbing over the balcony, observing all the environment and responding to the slightest movement, since they are very timid creatures, it was not an easy work,  but one day one stayed long enough and climbed inside the box, it learned that there was food there.

This animal model allows to observe innovation and adaptive responses in environments where they are needed, these are displayed to get what they wanted and learning depends on the level of dissonance that the environment offers. Unnecessary skills, are not used unless required by the measurement of the complexity of the task, we must not forget that these specimens are not domesticated and their only motivation is the food.

In future posts, I will share other models such as observed by slugs and snails and plants, especially the dandelion.


Chittka, L., Rossiter, SJ., Skorupski, P., and Fernando, C. (2012) What is comparable in comparative cognition? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Science. 367 (1603) 2677-2685.

Cook, G. (2013) Inside the Dog Mind. Scientific American Mind. 24. 28-29.

Dickinson, A. (2012) Associative learning and animal cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Science. 367 (1603) 2733-2742.

Dzib Goodin, A. (2013) La evolución del aprendizaje: más allá de las redes neuroanales. Revista Chilena de Neuropsicología.  8 (1) 20-25.

Heyes, C.  (2012) Simple minds: a qualified defence of associative learning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Science. 367 (1603) 2695-2703.

Green, MR., McCormick , CM. ( 2013) Effects of stressors in adolescence on learning and memory rodent models. Hormones and behavior. 64 (2) 364-379.

Legagneux, P., & Ducatez, S. (2013) European birds adjust their flight initiation distance to road speed limits. Biology Letters. 9 (5) 417.

Miklós, Á. & Topál. J. (2013) What does it take to become “best friends”? Evolutionary  changes in canine social competence. Trends in Cognitive Science. 17 (6) 287-294.

Shanahan, M. (2012) The brain’s connective core and its role in animal cogntion. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Science. 367 (1603) 2704-2714.

Thornton, A., Clayton, NS., and Grodzinski, U. ( 2012) Animal minds:  from computation to Evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Science. 367 (1603) 2670-2676.

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