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Do Animals Have Insight?

Recent research suggests that animals may solve problems the way humans do.

Have you ever tried to solve the nine-dot problem? Basically, it involves nine dots arranged in a 3 x 3 square matrix which you are told to join using four consecutive straight lines without lifting the pencil from the paper. Most people trying to solve the problem waste time drawing four lines within the square. Solving the problem means having that “aha!” moment and realizing that you need to think “outside the box” by extending the lines beyond the square to allow all nine dots to be joined.

Along with being a popular thinking test used by management consultants for decades, the nine-dot problem also represents a way of understanding how human insight works. According to researchers studying the “aha” moment and the cognition underlying intuition, the “aha” process usually comes in one of three ways:

  1. The “aha” moment can appear suddenly, followed a subjective exclamation of surprise and delight (think “Eureka!”).
  2. The moment can come after repeated failures which provide no apparent help in solving the problem. In many cases, the failures allow people to “home in” on the correct answer which is when the “aha” moment finally happens.
  3. The “aha” moment comes after the problem is completely restructured making a new approach possible.

Though studying human insight is relatively straightforward since human subjects can provide verbal feedback about how their thought processes work, what can researchers learn about how animals solve problems? Are animals capable of having “aha” moments as well? And how could we even tell?

Animal researchers have often reported problem-solving behaviours in animals such as chimpanzees and elephants which can resemble the kind of “aha” moment that humans have. When a chimpanzee is frustrated in getting a banana out of reach but then suddenly uses a rake to solve the problem, can that be considered insight? Or an elephant pushing a box underneath an out-of-reach apple so that it can climb up to get the reward? According to Professor Sara J. Shettleworth, that appears to be the case.

An emeritus professor of psychology and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto, Professor Shettleworth has a longstanding interest in animal cognition as well as being the author of a 2012 text titled Fundamentals of Comparative Cognition. In a recent paper published in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, she outlines the various problems involved in testing whether animals are capable of having “aha” moments similar to what humans experience. While human problem solving can be tested in a variety of ways, it likely doesn’t help that even cognitive scientists are divided on how human insight actually works. Since animals cannot provide verbal cues about their thinking processes, all that remains is to study their behaviour and attempt to compare it to the types of behaviour that humans demonstrate when they solve problems.

But is seeing an animal abruptly solving a problem that could not be solved before evidence of insight or could it be something else entirely? In her article, Professor Shettleworth summarizes the work of many of her predecessors including Wolfgang Kohler, Donald Hebb, and W.H. Thorpe among others. She also outlines some of the contemporary work looking at insight in different animal species. Along with mammal research on species such as chimpanzees, elephants, dogs and rats, researchers have also found insightful behaviour in various bird species including parrots, corvids (crows and ravens), and even songbirds.

One popular problem-solving task involves string-pulling. If a string is tied to food that is otherwise out of reach, will the animal learn to pull on the string to get the food? A more elaborate task involves having two or more strings with only being attached to food and having the animal choose which string to pull. In many experiments involving different animals, evidence of animal learning and being able to apply experience at similar tasks in solving new tasks seems to vary depending on animal species (birds seem less capable of solving the task overall than mammals).

A more intriguing task is based on a fable by Aesop about a thirsty crow that fills a water vessel with pebbles to make the water level rise. To simulate the Aesop fable, a group of orangutans were presented with a narrow tube with a peanut floating just out of reach. After failing to get the peanut, the orangutans then took turns filling their mouths with water from a nearby source and then spitting the water into the tube. This caused the water level to rise and brought the peanut within reach. In later trials, those same orangutans did not bother reaching into the tube and placed water inside instead.

Though other experiments using this same task showed that gorilla, chimpanzee, and other orangutans are often unable to solve the task, testing with four to eight year-old human children showed that older children were able to solve the task fairly quickly (and a variation on this task is used in some standardized measures of executive functioning). Fittingly enough, the Aesop task was also tested on crows although the results are still controversial over whether they are showing true insight or not.

The same controversy applies to tool use and even tool-making, One report on a New Caledonia crow named Betty showed the crow spontaneously making a wire tool under laboratory conditions, apparently after failing to solve the problem directly. Since this same species of crow has been observed using tools in the wild, researchers are assuming this is evidence for insight in at least certain bird species.

While research is still ongoing, there seems to be at least some evidence that different species of animals appear to show insight though it is still not possible to tell if this is similar to the insight seen in humans. Again, since animals are not capable of true language, we can never question them directly about their “aha” moments, we can only watch and see how they behave while solving problems. Perhaps the biggest problem in understanding animal insight is that we are still not quite sure what triggers insight in humans. As researchers learn more about the neuroscience of human insight, applying it to non-humans as well will be the natural next step.