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Animal Thinking and Language

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Animal Thinking and Language

When we talk to our pets, do they understand us? When they make noises, are they responding to something we said? We have this deep desire to connect and communicate with our pets, but do animals share that desire and ability?

  • What are animal thinking and language?
  • What are the characteristics of animal thinking and learning?
  • What are some examples of animal thinking and language?
  • How is animal thinking different from human thinking?
  • What role do animal thinking and language play in psychology?

Animal Thinking and Language Definition

What is language? If language is the ability to communicate meaningfully through the use of symbols, then some animals are capable of language! Researchers have been training apes to use sign language for many years. Some of the animals have learned hundreds of words and understand how to perform many specific tasks accurately.

Koko, a western lowland gorilla, famously learned over 1,000 signs and understood over 2,000 English words! Through the language and signs she learned, Koko gave us a glimpse into her capacity for thinking. Although she had a vocabulary similar to that of a small child, her communication still lacked meaningful syntax and grammar.

Some researchers believe that this kind of communication is based on training and that it is no different than teaching a dog to do tricks. Animals like Koko learn enough words and signs to communicate, but they are only able to communicate in a limited way with their human trainers. They can only use these new skills to communicate with other gorillas who have also been trained to communicate in this way.

If language is a spoken or signed method of communication with specific rules of syntax and grammar, then animals are unable to share the human capacity for language. Animal thinking and communication abilities just aren't sophisticated enough to be considered language. This doesn't mean that animals are completely incapable of thinking, learning, and communicating, though!

Some animals vocalize more in the presence of humans than they do toward each other. Cats meow almost exclusively towards humans. Cats may vocalize to other cats as a warning when they are unsure of their safety, but it is rare for grown cats to meow as a form of communication with one another. Cats meow enthusiastically in the presence of humans, though!

Animal Thinking and Language, a white kitten yawning, StudySmarterCats meow enthusiastically in the presence of humans, Pixabay.

Animal Thinking Characteristics

Do animals think? While animals are not able to think in the deeply intellectual way humans do, all animals show a level of meaningful cognitive processing that suggests a degree of thinking. Animals share some of the characteristics of thinking that humans possess. These include basic problem-solving, mathematical abilities, social skills, and learning.

Apes are able to learn basic mathematic skills like addition and subtraction. They have also demonstrated a basic understanding of numerical values by selecting slides with the most or least number of dots.

Christopher Bird and Nathan Emory (2009) studied the cognitive abilities of crows.1 Specifically, they wanted to know if crows are able to problem-solve. The crows in the study were faced with figuring out how to extract pieces of food from a container with water in it. The water level was pretty low, but it still made it difficult to eat the food. The crows were so smart! They figured out how to solve the problem: add small pebbles to the container until all the food pieces rose to the top of the water.

Animals also display limited social skills, like cooperation towards a goal. Think about how bees, ants, and wolves work together as a group. This is the social skill of cooperation to reach a goal. These same animals also have their own social hierarchy. Bees have a queen and wolves have an alpha. The hierarchy determines roles and duties in gathering food and providing protection. Another social dynamic of animals is imprinting.

Imprinting: a process that occurs in early life as a way for animals to form a strong bond with the first animal or person they see after birth.

Baby ducks and geese imprint onto their mothers shortly after they are born. Because of this, they seek and follow after their mothers. In 1937, Konrad Lorenz famously explored the phenomenon of imprinting by swapping himself in for the mother duck. The ducklings ended up imprinting on him and following him around as if he were their true mother.

How Do Animals Learn?

Animals are capable of learning. Some animals learn to be better behaved than others. Some animals even learn impressive or adorable tricks. How do animals learn? Learning is simply acquiring new information or behaviors through experience.

Animals can learn through classical or operant conditioning, just like humans. An animal housed in a zoo can learn to associate a specific light or sound with meal deliveries. Using food as a reward, a dog can learn how to play dead. By using a time-out in a crate as punishment, the same dog can learn not to jump and bark when guests come over.

Can Animals Become Smarter?

What affects an animal's ability to learn? It might seem like an animal can learn virtually anything through conditioning. However, there are certain biological elements that prepare an animal to be able to learn a certain way. There are some things that animals can learn, and there are some things they can't. Preparedness refers to a biological predisposition for limited learning that increases the chances of survival.

Taste aversion is a great example of preparedness at work. If you've ever eaten something and later gotten sick or really nauseous, you will probably avoid that particular food for a while or even forever. Even if it turns out that the food was not ultimately responsible for your nausea, you might still stay away from it for some time. The association between nausea and food serves to protect your body and health. This same ability to quickly associate foods with their bodily consequences has been observed in animals as well!

A lot of the behavior we see in animals is an expression of instinct and not advanced cognitive abilities. An instinct is a complex, unlearned behavior that follows specific rules.

A bird building a nest, or a spider weaving a web, are examples of instinct in animals. No one teaches the spider how to build a web or tells the spider to build one. The spider knows how and does it without any external prompting.

While an animal's life may be governed by instinct in many ways, such as in mating or building a nest, animals are still able to learn novel behaviors. Using simple rewards and punishments, animals can learn to perform a variety of tricks. However, it is not uncommon for animals to stop acting out the tricks they have learned and regress to instinctual behaviors. Instinctive drift occurs when an animal reverts back to its biologically predisposed behaviors.

Raccoons that are taught to pick up wooden coins and drop them directly into a piggy bank sometimes revert to normal raccoon behaviors. Instead of dropping them in the back, they inspect the coins or dip them into the bank as if they were washing them.

Animal Thinking and Language Examples

Animals possess a certain degree of cognition. They are able to absorb information through their senses and learn from it to an extent. Bees are able to remember where a food source is located and communicate that information to the rest of the hive. Birds use sticks and debris as tools to unearth food. Stray cats keep coming back to the same house that puts out a food bowl.

While animals don't use language in the same sense that humans do, they share a simple but effective form of communication. Birds convey a variety of meanings to each other through their songs and cries. They have different calls for attracting a mate, signaling danger, and warning before flying off.

Animal Thinking and Language, two sheep facing each other and smiling, StudySmarterAnimals share a simple but effective form of communication, Pixabay.

Is it Thinking or Instinct?

Some animal behaviors seem sophisticated or intelligent. Think of salmon swimming against the current to travel upstream in order to mate. It can seem like this behavior is a product of reflection and reasoning. However, the elegant behaviors we observe in animals are more a product of instinct than thinking. What about the emotions of animals? Are they also instinctual, preprogrammed responses?

Do Animal Emotions Reflect Animal Thinking?

It can seem like an animal is thinking and reacting in a rational way when they smile or narrow their brows in anger. However, animal emotions reflect instincts and not higher-order cognitive skills. Emotions serve an adaptive function, according to evolutionary scientists. Fear is adaptive because it keeps an animal alive. A rabbit fears a wolf without thinking about it. The emotional response comes before any thought or reaction.

Animals also show facial expressions in response to pain or when satisfying a basic drive, like excitement in response to food. These emotions and facial expressions do not require thinking abilities. Some scientists believe mirror neurons are responsible for the emotional imitation observed in other species.

Mirror neurons: cause animals and humans to instinctually imitate what they see. Smiles and frowns are great examples of this.

Differences Between Human and Animal Thinking

The human brain is incredibly complex in structure, neural cells, and connectivity. No other species contains a more complicated nervous system. Our brains are more sophisticated than those of any other animal. Humans are able to use language to communicate with each other in deep and nuanced ways. We even celebrate those among us who are particularly expressive or creative in their communication, like writers or singers.

While animals share some cognitive similarities with humans, they are not equivalencies. Animals are capable of learning to sort, perform basic math equations, and solve simple problems. However, the differences between an animal's and a human's ability to perform these tasks and their motivation for doing so far outweigh the similarities. Our sophisticated cognitive skills allow us to think, act, and feel in non-instinctive ways. Human beings are capable of higher-order thinking.

Higher-order thinking: thinking that goes beyond just memorizing facts, learning through association, or repeating information back to someone. Higher-order thinking requires us to apply what we learn. When we analyze, comprehend, rationalize, understand, infer, manipulate, and connect facts to other concepts, we are using higher-order thinking skills.

Human beings are capable of deep, meaningful cognition. We are able to richly communicate our thoughts and feelings. Even though animals can sense distress, they are not conscious of our thoughts and experiences in the same way humans are able to empathize with one another.

Animal Thinking and Language Psychology

Studying animal thinking helps us understand the evolution of cognition and language. We can understand in ways in which humans are similar to or different from another species and how each species differs from another. We are also better able to understand the ways in which humans are unique among other species. Ethology is the field of scientific study dedicated to examining and understanding animal behavior. Ethology helps us understand animals and evolution, and it is also instrumental in animal welfare.

Animal Thinking and Language - Key takeaways

  • Animals experience cognition and engage in a certain degree of thinking.
  • Animal and human thinking a different, although they share some similar characteristics: basic problem-solving, mathematical abilities, social skills, and learning.
  • Higher-order thinking sets human thinking apart from animal thinking.
  • Many behaviors that appear sophisticated in animals can be explained by preparedness, instinct, and mirror neurons.
  • Classical and operant conditioning are two ways that animals learn.

References

  1. Christopher Bird and Nathan Emory. "Rooks Use Stones to Raise the Water Level to Reach a Floating Worm." Current Biology. Vol. 19. No. 16. 2009.

Frequently Asked Questions about Animal Thinking and Language

Animals do think in a more rudimentary way than humans, but they don't use language in the same way that humans do.

Animals do not think the same as humans; they think in a more simple, rudimentary way to fulfill specific needs.

Animals think without language through the innate desire to satisfy basic needs like food, shelter, and safety. 

Thinking plays a role in language, but it is not the only determining factor in language.

Animals exhibit a form of communication, but it is not considered language as we understand it as humans. 

Final Animal Thinking and Language Quiz

Question

True or False: Animals think in the same way that humans do. 

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False

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What are 5 characteristics of animal thinking? 

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Problem-solving, mathematical ability, learning concepts, emotionality, and social skills

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Adding stones to raise the water level in a tube in order to attain food is an example of which characteristic of animal thinking? 

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Problem-solving

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Sorting items into the correct category is an example of which characteristic of animal thinking? 

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Learning concepts

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Functioning within a social hierarchy and working together to maintain food and safety is an example of which characteristic of animal thinking? 

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Social skills

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Grieving the loss of their owner is an example of which characteristic of animal thinking? 

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Emotionality

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Correctly solving a subtraction problem is an example of which characteristic of animal thinking? 

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Mathematical ability

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What is one of the most important features of human language?

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The ability to communicate meaningfully within the species.

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What is one main difference between animal and human language?

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Humans are able to communicate meaningfully within the species, and animals are not. 

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Which 3 things fuel animal communication?

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Food, shelter, and safety. 

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True or False: Animals are able to communicate. 

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True

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True or False: Animals can meaningfully communicate within their species. 

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False

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Apes have been able to learn hundreds of _____________.

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Signs

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Birds use different calls in order to __________. 

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Attract a mate, signal dancer, and as a warning before flying off. 

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True or false: Animals are conscious of the thoughts and experiences of humans. 

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False

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_________  is a field of study that focuses on animals' thinking processes and behavior.

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Animal cognition

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What is the goal of animal cognition?

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To better understand animal minds by employing a variety of methodologies across a wide range of species.

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Which is not an example of the cognitive behavior of animals?


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Eating

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Animals use rocks and trees to determine their position relative to their homes.


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Landmarks

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A technique that relies on mental images of the environment.


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Cognitive maps

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_________ is the mental capacity to remember and retrieve personal memories of everyday experiences.


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Episodic memory

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_________ theorized both human and animal bodies are like machines.


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René Descartes

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__________ proposed that all species, including humans, evolved as they compete for survival in response to environmental changes.

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Charles Darwin

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__________ theorized that awareness is not exclusive to humans


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Margaret Floy Washburn

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_________ explores cognitive capacities across species, including animal cognition and behavior.


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Comparative psychology

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__________ is the number of article citations a journal receives in a year.


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Impact factor

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Which is not true?


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Animal cognition is not essential as more fields of research come up.

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Based on this theory, animal studies such as cats, dogs, and primates provided insights into object permanence and sensory-motor skills.


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Cognitive theory

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Which is true about the impact factor?


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An IF of 3 is considered good.

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Which animal has the highest intelligence?


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Primates

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____________ is the ability to think about another's mental state (i.e. I think that he thinks that I think)

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Theory of mind

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What is required for animals to be capable of communication? 

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Theory of mind

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Bees are known to communicate the location of food sources using complex _________.

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dances

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Animal _________ specifically refers to the modeling of human language in other animal behaviors and systems.


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language

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What was significant about Washoe?

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Potentially displayed creative combinations in vocabulary (i.e. water bird for swan)

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Which nonhuman primate is known to, reportedly, understand syntax in spoken English?

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Kanzi

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Which nonhuman primate learned more than 1,000 signs and could comprehend over 2,000 words from the English language.

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Koko

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True or False? Human words must be learned and acquired culturally.

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True

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True or False? Human communication is driven by the context in reaction to stimuli and cannot consider things outside their immediate environments. 

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False. Humans can talk about things that are in their immediate environments

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Nonhuman primates have a ______________ which means they cannot combine sounds to produce new symbols.  

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 closed vocal system

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What are metalingustics?

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Humans can discuss language itself.

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Some critics suggest that when learning American sign language, nonhuman primates are actually engaging in ____________ in which hand symbols lead to a reward or positive reinforcement (i.e. food, toys). 

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operant conditioning

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What is perceptual set and how is it realted to the interpretation of animal language research?

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A perceptual set refers to our tendancy to see what we want or expect to see. Another common criticism of research on animal language is that perhaps the researchers were simply seeing what they wanted to see.

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