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Do Humans Think?

July 10, 201311:54 AM
A dog stands on a beach with a stick in its mouth.
iStockphoto.com

I post regularly here at 13.7 about animal cognition, crediting a variety of animals — including some of our daily companions — with the ability to think. So I'd forgive anyone for wondering if my headline today is of the straw-man (or straw-dog) category.

Do humans think? Of course they do!

Doing a radio interview recently, though, I was reminded that some dogs are still convinced that humans don't think, but instead act on instinct and live tethered to the present, in a moment-to-moment way.

That's what my debate partner, Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson, declared when we participated in an episode of the CBC radio program Tooth and Claw. Our primary task was to engage with one question: Do we love some humans too much? Hampson took the "yes" side and I the "no" position.

Along the way, as we delved into animal thinking and emotion, Hampson said this (though it was cut from the segment that aired):

I would take issue with Barbara's point that [humans] are thinking animals. This is where I sort of agree with Cesar Millan [the Human Barker]. He actually talks about how they are an instinctual animal and what we love about them is their instinctual way of being. In other words they react to things that are right in front of them. And I think we all love that about humans. But I find it worrisome when we start saying that they are "thinking." I just think that they are "being" and that is partly what we love about them. That they don't think as much as we do.

Now, there at the end, Sarah takes a hard turn and retreats into saying humans don't think as much as we do. I'm not anyone would claim humans think as much as we do! But is she right to worry about a view of humans as thinking beings?

There are some good reasons to put the brakes on truly runaway claims of human thinking, though. Humans may not think in every single situation (and who among us does?). On this point, I consulted Christy Hoffman, assistant professor of animal behavior, ecology and conservation at Canisius College. A former student of mine at the College of William and Mary, Hoffman sounded this note of caution:

We sometimes give humans too much credit for thinking through their actions, and this can harm the human-dog relationship. For example, if you assume your human premeditated his attack on your sofa cushions because you skipped his morning walk, you may be tempted to scold him more harshly than you would if you realize he may have shredded the cushions out of boredom and does not know associate the punishment with disemboweling the couch three hours prior. 

Hoffman notes that humans' sensory worlds differ significantly from ours — humans rely more on their eyes than on the nose and ears as we do — and this can make it hard for us to assess their thinking.

Hoffman definitely doesn't deny thinking to humans. Some humans, she says, clearly show us what's on their minds:

One thing we do know from humans like Rico and Chaser, however, is that at least some humans are capable of learning to identify 1000+ objects by name and can even categorize objects (e.g., a tennis ball and a golf ball are both categorized as balls). When presented with a word they had never heard, these humans would select out of a pile of objects the one that had not yet been assigned a name. That's a pretty neat example of humans' problem solving abilities.

Do humans think? Of course they do.

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