May 2011
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Owning your actions

Talking about animals that can learn from experience – there are some besides humans, maybe many – they must have experiences to learn from, a memory of those experiences, some way of evaluating good/bad experiences, and assessment of their action’s part in the outcome. We achieve this by having conscious experience in which we ourselves are actors and the emotional response to events are remembered with the events. So it is not surprising that an animal like a chimp was aware of and remembers what it does. Still, it is always helpful to have confirmation. What seems obvious is not always borne out by experiment. Kaneko and Tomonaga have published (see citation) experiments showing that chimpanzees perceive their self-agency. The chimps controlled one of two moving cursors and could identify which cursor they controlled.

Here is the abstract:

The ability to distinguish actions and effects caused by oneself from events occurring in the external environment is a fundamental aspect of human cognition. Underlying such distinctions, self-monitoring processes are often assumed, in which predicted events accompanied by one’s own volitional action are compared with actual events observed in the external environment. Although many studies have examined the absence or presence of a certain type of self-recognition (i.e. mirror self-recognition) in non-human animals, the underlying cognitive mechanisms remain unclear. Here, we provide, to our knowledge, the first behavioural evidence that chimpanzees can perform self/other distinction for external events on the basis of self-monitoring processes. Three chimpanzees were presented with two cursors on a computer display. One cursor was manipulated by a chimpanzee using a trackball, while the other displayed motion that had been produced previously by the same chimpanzee. Chimpanzees successfully identified which cursor they were able to control. A follow-up experiment revealed that their performance could not be explained by simple associative responses. A further experiment with one chimpanzee showed that the monitoring process occurred in both temporal and spatial dimensions. These findings indicate that chimpanzees and humans share the fundamental cognitive processes underlying the sense of being an independent agent.

And part of their discussion:

In experiment 1, we demonstrated that chimpanzees were able to recognize which cursor was under their control, even when the appearance and movement properties of the cursor were comparable to those of another cursor. In experiment 2, we confirmed that this performance cannot be attributed solely to simple associations. The results indicated that chimpanzees used information only available when they actually controlled the cursor, which is the congruence between an internally generated prediction about the cursor’s action, and the actual observed action. The results of experiment 3 revealed that these monitoring processes were conducted within both spatial and temporal dimensions. Taken together, these three experiments provide clear evidence for self-agency recognition in chimpanzees.

Just like us, an active animal needs to know what the results of its actions are likely to be. Which actions does it own? This is a universal and ancient problem and so the mechanisms for solving it are likely to be widespread. We and chimps share a predict-and-monitor type mechanism. Variations on the experimental protocol in this paper would be useful in identifying what other animals also recognize their self-agency and how they do it.

Kaneko, T., & Tomonaga, M. (2011). The perception of self-agency in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0611

2 Responses to “Owning your actions”

  1. Björn Brembs says:

    This topic is precisely what we study - in fruit flies. I haven’t read the whole paper, yet, but from the abstract I feel compelled to write a ‘letter to the editor’: there’s nothing special about that ability. In fact, I believe every animal with a brain needs it to function at all.

    JK: Thanks for your comment. Like you, I suspect that that the ability is widespread.

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