Magicians can make us see things that are not happening, make objects disappear and move and create illusions, but what they really do is direct and control our attention mechanisms. “Their deception methodologies are based on our attentional and perceptual instability“, Elías García-Pelegrín, a scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom).
Knowing the fascination that magic generates in people, the team of this researcher decided to check if animals would be able to “fall” into the same magic tricks as humans. If this were so, scientists suggest that we would have not only similar attention mechanisms, but also a similar level of understanding of the world around us and expectations of physical laws.
“If we were used to objects disappearing out of nowhere or levitate, making them disappear or levitate would not impress us much. Studying animals with magic tricks helps us understand their expectation systems and how they see the world around them “, adds García-Pelegrín.
In their study, now published in the journal Science, psychologists show that animals with advanced cognition such as primates, the raven family, and the cephalopod family (octopuses and cuttlefish) already use distraction and attention control techniques similar to those used by magicians.
“The fact that these intelligent species are able to use the techniques with others shows that they must be susceptible to them, since if not, the behavior would be of little use”, emphasizes the researcher. According to the expert, being susceptible to the same (or at least similar) attention control techniques that humans normally fall into, suggests that these animals must have systems of perception and attention analogous to people.
An example of this is the case of the Eurasian jay (Garrulus Galandarius), of the family of the crows, which hides hazelnuts in the ground to consume them a couple of weeks later. But they have to resort to methods of distracting attention from other jays or squirrels by pretending to hide them in various places so that they are not stolen.
On the other hand, the giant crow (Corvus Corax), which lives with wolves in its natural state and normally steals their bones and meat remains, is able to perceive the moments when canids are distracted and thus steal their food.
“These techniques are very interesting on an ecological level, but also on a psychological level since understand and be able to imagine the attentional state of another living being (of the same or another species) it is a very advanced cognitive ability and part of what is called Theory of Mind, a cognitive ability that has been considered as important as standing for human evolution “, emphasizes the researcher.
Better understand humans
This type of study not only shows the cognitive abilities of animals in certain situations, it also teaches us that humans are not so different. “When we compare the cognitive abilities of any person with another animal, it is usually with the chimpanzee since it is our closest relative. We rarely study how other taxonomically different species such as birds and cephalopods may have similar cognitive abilities to ours “, says the psychologist.
According to the expert, since the common ancestor of humans and these animals is very distant, it is likely that these abilities have evolved convergently with ours. “The truth is that in terms of attention we are not much superior to a crow“, indicates García-Pelegrín. This would not mean that the attentional mechanism is more or less intelligent,” it tells us that it probably happened due to similar ecological qualities, “he highlights.
Thanks to the comparison with animals, this study takes another step to decipher the complicated cognitive ability of the human being. But not only that. Research shows that other organisms may have human-like experiences with the world.
“For scientists it is a different way of approaching cognition and its experimental methodology, taking ideas not only rooted in theory and what has already been done, but also drawing inspiration from other subjects that at first glance may seem distant and useless” , concludes the researcher.