Understanding the mind of humans and animals is one of the “final frontiers” of modern science. Despite many breakthroughs, there is so much we don’t yet understand. Still, there is proof of significant differences between human and animal cognition. We might be, in a sense, just another animal, yet animals are incapable of thinking just as we do. This has been illustrated through comprehensive research on the brains of people and animals and studies of human and animal behavior.
The History of This Question
For millennia, people thought that what separated humanity from animals was the presence of a soul, an assumption largely based on religion. This paradigm changed with Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. Darwin held that homo sapiens are the descendants of primates and that humans are “big-brained apes.” Modern science has not disproved Darwin’s theory of evolution, although it has demonstrated that the human brain is more different from a primate’s brain than he might have imagined.
Neural Research and the Uniqueness of the Human Brain
Neural studies, or the microscopic analysis of the physical brain, has shown that the human brain is structurally different from that of other animals. In 1999, the neuroscientists Preuss and Coleman disproved the theory of the near uniformity of mammalian brains.
They discovered mesh-like patterns in the human brain’s visual cortex that don’t exist in other mammals, even the most highly-developed primates. They also found that the human brain has many more VEN neurons than primate brains. These two unique structures are believed to be responsible for the complexity of human emotions, giving rise to such feelings as guilt, embarrassment, and empathy.
The Science of Cognition
While neural research demonstrates the microscopic structure of the brain, it is studies of cognition that more clearly delineate how humans think differently from animals. Harvard scientist Marc Hauser has described four human cognitive abilities that animals seem to lack:
- Gaining an understanding by combining pieces of information.
- Applying common “rules” to various problems.
- Creating symbolic representations.
- Detaching thought from sensory input.
Laser Beam VS Floodlight Thinking
Hauser compares human and animal cognition to the disparate functions of a floodlight and a laser beam. Animals, Hauser contends, operate via laser beam cognition. They can use their brains to find a solution to a specific problem. But they cannot then transfer this solution to another area of life or modify it to solve a different problem. Meanwhile, humans have floodlight intelligence, allowing us to recognize patterns and see ways in which a certain solution to a particular problem might be useful in other areas of life.
Limited Similarities in Human and Animal Cognition
There are, of course, certain ways in which animal cognition resembles that of human beings. Teaching is one such example. Adult cats are known to catch mice and bring them back to their offspring to teach the kittens how to hunt. Even here, however, the behavior differs from its human form in that cats teach this offspring based on pure instinct and adaptation. In contrast, human individuals are capable of teaching a great number of subjects to our brethren for various societal and cultural reasons. Some animals are also known to use tools, an ability that had previously been assumed to only exist in humans.
Chimpanzees can use a stick or other object as a tool for a single purpose. Still, the human ability to manufacture a tool from various components and use it for different purposes remains entirely unique.
Other Areas of Similarity
There are other ways in which animals think similarly to humans, but not up to the same levels.
Here are some examples:
- Chimpanzees have been shown to have short-term memories nearly as strong as humans.
- Many animals have proven that they can identify causal relationships by, for example, pushing a lever that will give them food.
- Birds seem to plan much like humans, laying out food for the next day.
- Chimpanzees engage in deception, misleading their cohorts through false-positive statements for their personal gain.
- Chimpanzees can perceive goals or desires in another (although this rough form of “empathy” is put toward personal, selfish ends rather than social cohesion).
- Chimpanzees communicate by pounding a surface with their hands, an action that could be interpreted as a primitive form of “sign language.”
So, can animals think like we do? Not exactly. There is much about human cognition that is unique, despite the impressive mental feats visible in the animal kingdom.