[ExI] "Animal-monitoring modules"?
jcowan5 at sympatico.ca
Fri Sep 28 12:32:02 UTC 2007
It won't come as a surprise humans are more attuned to spotting moving
animals than moving minivans but a brain module just for such an event?
hmmm? What if they had moved berry bushes or potential mates instead of
minivans? Do other humans fall under this animal monitoring module?
Sep 27th 2007
From The Economist print edition
WHICH is more dangerous, an elephant or a minivan? For most readers of
this newspaper, the answer is going to be a minivan. From childhood,
people in motorised civilisations are warned about the dangers of
running into the road, taught the appropriate highway code and—when old
enough—permitted to get behind the wheel only after having undergone a
rigorous programme of training that ends with a formal examination.
You might think, therefore, that such people would be more aware of the
movements of vehicles than of animals. But if you did think that, you
would be wrong. An experiment just published in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences by Joshua New of Yale University shows
that people pay more attention to the activities of animals than to
those of vehicles. That applies even among urban Westerners who rarely
see an animal from one year's end to the next.
Dr New was testing a theory of mind originally developed by Leda
Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of California, Santa Barbara,
with whom he collaborated on the experiment. Dr Cosmides and Dr Tooby
were among the first to break from the idea that the brain has evolved
as a general-purpose problem-solving machine. They suggested that some
tasks are so important and so universal that you would expect to find
specially evolved “modules” to handle them, just as the senses are
handled by specialised areas of the brain's cortex.
Dr Tooby and Dr Cosmides have found evidence to support the existence
of such modules in areas of human relations such as the perception of
fairness. Now Dr New has provided some more evidence, in a completely
different area. Building on the observations of other researchers that
there seem to be natural mental categories of objects that are
represented separately in the brain (animal, plant, person, tool and
topography are reasonably well-established examples), he wondered if
people would respond in systematically different ways to members of
His experiment worked by showing volunteers pairs of photographs
containing one or more objects from the five mental categories in
question. The photos in each pair were identical except that one object
had changed its orientation or had been removed altogether, and the
volunteers had to work out what had changed.
The first thing Dr New looked at was whether the brain pays more
attention to the sort of change that might be expected, or to changes
that are unexpected. On the face of it, either might have turned out to
be the case. Paying attention to the expected is probably best for
everyday existence. Noticing the unexpected, though, might save your
In this part of the experiment, the expected won out. The volunteers
were better at detecting changes involving things that do routinely
move—in other words, people and animals—than of those that would be
expected to be static, such as plants and coffee mugs.
The question Dr New really wanted to address, though, was whether such
expectations are learned or innate. For that, he included a class of
object that his subjects would have learned, by experience, have a
tendency to move, but which past evolution could have had no purchase
on: motorised vehicles.
The answer was that changes concerning animals were significantly
easier to detect than those concerning cars. In the most telling
comparison, 100% of volunteers noticed the movement of an elephant in
the African bush. Only 72% noticed the movement of a minivan in a
similar piece of bush. And that was despite the fact that the image of
the van was somewhat larger in the photograph than the image of the
elephant, and that the minivan was red, not grey.
This highly honed ability to notice animal activity (it applies to
small familiar animals, such as pigeons, as well as large unfamiliar
ones, such as elephants) argues that an animal-monitoring module is
innate in the brain. As, indeed, might be expected. Animals are
important: small ones are supper; large ones are best avoided, lest
they eat you or trample you to death. In other words, you can take the
human out of the savannah. But you cannot take the savannah out of the
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