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Conscious Reflection vs Embodied Habits: Human Cognition from a Nonhuman Perspective

1 September 2019 until 31 August 2023
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We share this world with numerous other species. These species differ from us in considerable ways: some have wings, spend much of their days in the air and can sense the earth’s magnetic field. Others have flippers, live in the open oceans and communicate using echolocation. On the other hand, many of them are hightly intelligent creatures just like we are. What are the minds of these animals like? How should we understand and describe their cognitive abilities, without ‘anthropomorphizing’ them, that is, turning them into little versions of ourselves?

We often attempt to answer such questions by defining essential features of an ability in humans and looking for similar features in other animals. However, this results in a bias towards species that intuitively resemble us in some sense: being social, having large brains and behaving flexibly in a general sense. This will inevitably lead us to view the minds of nonhuman animals as precursors or otherwise lesser versions of ourselves.

In my NWO project "Conscious Reflection versus Embodied Habits: Human Cognition from a Nonhuman Perspective", I aim to develop a less human-centred view on animal minds, by understanding the cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals (corvids in particular) as ‘elaborations’ on their abilities to act and perceive in the world. This approach avoids looking for the ‘human-like’ in other animals, and allows us to understand the abilities of nonhuman animals independently from humans, as well as our own abilities as just one example of what it means to be an intelligent species, instead of the paradigmatic case.