Is Your Baby as Smart as a Cockatoo? Maybe Not

Object permanence is a high-order concept, and cockatoos master it better than babies

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If babies weren’t so smart, they’d be incredibly dumb. The baby brain is perhaps the world’s greatest learning machine, but it starts out almost entirely empty — particularly concerning the basic way the world works. Babies drop something they’re enjoying eating or playing with partly because they have no reason to expect it won’t just hover where they release it. Gravity comes as something of a surprise.

Equally unexpected to them is the fact that when a thing drops out of sight, it doesn’t drop out of existence too. The idea that a person who leaves the room, a toy that’s been covered by a blanket, a face that’s hidden by peek-a-boo hands still exists — even if invisibly — is known as object permanence. Humans and most of the great apes get a grasp of object permanence early on, an ability that was always thought to make us unique among all of the other species of the world. Now, however, it appears that we’ve been joined by another, decidedly different critter: cockatoos. According to a study in the Journal of Comparative Psychology by a team of researchers at the University of Vienna and Oxford University, cockatoos not only can master object permanence but also can apply it in surprisingly sophisticated ways.

It was in the 1950s that Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget first began exploring the concept of object permanence in babies, mostly by allowing a baby to see a toy, then covering it up in some way and looking at the age at which children tried to move whatever was concealing it as opposed to crying in frustration or looking away in seeming acceptance that the thing was now forever lost. By age 2, nearly all babies get it.

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That simple knowledge leads to other kinds of basic skills — the ability to track a hidden object as it is moved around, like the carnival game in which a ball is concealed by one of three cups that are then shuffled around on a table. More sophisticated still is the idea of spatial trajectory — watching a car enter one of three tunnel entrances, say, and knowing not only the exit from which the car will emerge but also roughly when it will reappear based on its speed.

Cockatoos belong to an order of birds that includes parrots and other species, many of which have exhibited surprising cognitive skills, including elaborate play behavior and clever object manipulation — a first step toward tool use. To determine if cockatoos might also have some sense of object permanence, the scientists administered four tests to a group of eight adult birds. The first was a basic Piaget test, in which food was shown to the birds and then hidden behind one of three screens; if the cockatoos went to the trouble to look for it, it would indicate that they knew it was still there somewhere. The result? So-so. Only two of the eight adult birds could complete the task.

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The remaining tests were harder. In the first, the cockatoos saw food being hidden under one of three cups and then had to play the carnival game — which the researchers call the transposition test. In the second, the straightforwardly named rotation test, the birds again knew where the food was, but the platform on which the cups rested was rotated to new positions, requiring the cockatoos to follow the right cup. In the third test, the translocation task, the platform stayed still, but the birds themselves were lifted and carried to different positions.

All of the subject birds easily solved the carnival task, even after multiple swaps of cup position. Human children don’t get it till age 3 or 4. Nonhuman apes understand it earlier, but can master only a single swap. The cockatoos also solved the translocation task, something human babies who are carried to new positions around a hidden object can’t keep up with until age 3 or 4. The rotation task takes babies even longer, but the birds nailed that one too.

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It’s not certain why cockatoos are so good at these kinds of object-permanence skills, but the scientists speculate that it has powerful survival benefits — ones that could suggest similar abilities in a lot of other birds. “We assume that the ability to fly and prey upon or [avoid] being preyed upon from the air is likely to require pronounced spatial-rotation abilities,” said Oxford behavioral ecologist Auguste von Bayern, one of the authors of the study.

Humans, as earthbound species, never would have needed the same talents, and to the extent that we had them, we probably let them languish since we rarely hunt for our food anymore and are never hunted ourselves. Looking for fixed objects in a  stationary environment, however, is an ability we need all the time, and so we acquire it early. Smart in one world is not always smart in another, and now and then, like it or not, the beasts are going to beat us.

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