Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Are you smarter than a cat?

Most people understand that we are prisoners of our own biases, of our perceptions. People who are supposed to be creative are often told to "think outside the box" (which is one of my most hated management cliches. It is always hard to "think outside the box" if upper management keeps nailing the lid shut on you). Our perceptions control us at a very fundamental level.

One of my neurocybernetics professors conducted experiments with kittens (yes, I know. He has since been sentenced for his crimes). One experiment involved raising the kittens in a black and white environment where there were no vertical lines. Only horizontal lines were present. When they were old enough they were brought into a normal environment.

Not surprisingly, they were not able to perceive vertical objects--they would wander around and bump into table legs or chairs. Such was their fate for being held inside the box of their stunted visual cortex.

But here is the real point. After a few weeks in a normal environment the neural plasticity of their brain saved them. They "learned" that vertical objects existed, and needed to be paid attention to. In other words, their biases were overcome by real world facts.

This is the real test of intelligence. Not whether you know everything, or if your "box" is the right box, but will you let facts change your learned behaviors? Or will your reflexes keep you walking into table legs?

Cats are smart enough to do this. Are you?

1 comment:

  1. One of my neurocybernetics professors conducted experiments with kittensOne of my sins is worse: I was the lead programmer at Princeton in 1980 on what became CORTEX, a NIMH program for data collection for recording brain signals in monkeys via implants.