[ExI] "Animal-monitoring modules"?

Josh Cowan 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 
those categories.

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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