Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Location: Rochester, United States

Chronically curious モ..

Friday, August 25, 2006

Why animals take 1000 trials to learn

Sometimes, experiments with animals can show that they are capable of certain cognitive patterns that mark human language. For example, the work by Keith Kluender on stuff like the perceptual magnet effect or coarticulatory compensation. The recent and much talked about paper is in the line begun by Hauser et al (here), wherein non-humans are shown/not shown to be able to do some grammatical tasks. In this paper, Gentner &al show that starlings can do recursion, supposedly the bastion of human language (see this too). So, starlings can do recursion. But, some critic-people point out, that these starlings take thousands of trials to learn the task. Whereas college grads typically are exposed to a few tens of trials. Of course, logically, if the experiments are well done and sufficiently controlled, showing that starlings do recursion says that starlings do recursion, and the trials don't really come into it. To give a silly example, no amount of throwing pigs off terraces will EVER induce them to take flight. But then why do starlings take so long? Here's a possibility. In the film Cube, 7 people are stuck in a cube-based structure, and lots of deadly traps and dying and all happens. Basically, it takes about 80% of the film to figure out what the trick to solving the cubes is. People DIE in the process. So, the possibility is, that the starlings have (almost) everything needed to solve the task, except knowing what the task itself is. College students have a HUGE head-start here. Without instructions, college students might, if not face death actually, be in a spot. Because, as we have all been told, there are limitless possibilities. So presumably, the starlings have the symbolic representations, they're just going through all kinds of combinations to solve the problem. Probably on each day they try a certain combination; and the combinations keep getting better (= more food), so the task really is to find a set of cognitive combination that maximizes food. A prediction: if it's really this combinatorial story, then maybe they thing module X1 is irrelevant, but that happens to be only because X2-X4 are enough. Come the day X2-X4 asre absent, X1 becomes necessary. So, they would fail. Prediction for an observation: if this story is true, then on an indiviudal level, every once in a while the bird should fail for no apparent reason. So the learning curve won't be like that for a skill, which is gradual, but should be more.. unsmooth. With big dips and strange uprises.


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