Comparative Cognition Lab

We study the ability of human and non-human animals to encode, store, and retrieve from memory the information (e.g., temporal, spatial, and causal) necessary for them to adapt to a dynamic world. My research studies these processes from within an associative learning perspective, which predicts integration and competition among the objects that control behavior. Associative learning has long since been thought to be important for learning the predictive relationship between pairings of an object (e.g., a bell) and a reinforcer (e.g., food), but only recently has evidence emerged to indicate that much more (e.g., temporal, spatial, and causal information) can be learned from these seemingly simple pairings. For example, when several landmarks surrounding a feeding site are introduced in a piecemeal fashion (A-B, A-C) with a common element (A) they can be integrated in memory to generate novel inferences (i.e., B-C) that control search behavior. My research uses Pavlovian and instrumental procedures to study the content of representations formed during learning and how these representations influence future responses (e.g., timing, location, and magnitude). With regards to the content of memory, my research has found evidence to support the acquisition of spatial (where), temporal (when), and causal (how) information during associative procedures.

Ongoing Lab Projects

  • Hierarchical control of search behavior. We are interested in testing hierarchical vs. configural theories of occasion setting within a spatial-search task. For example, pigeons learn to find food in one location relative to a landmark (to the left) if the background color of a computer display is red and at another location relative to the same landmark (to the right) if the background color is blue. The color of the display may modulate the spatial relationship between the landmark and food (hierarchical theory) or each background color may be represented as a unique configuration with the landmark. This project uses nearly identical methods to test pigeons and humans. The pigeons peck to a touchscreen-equipped monitor and humans use a blaster to select the location of a hidden reward (via a sensor bar).
  • Selective interference effects in working memory. We are using a change detection task with pigeons, rats, and humans to make cross-species comparisons regarding the nature of working memory. We have recently developed an iPad App for behavioral investigations with non-human animals and validated the use of the iPad with rats.
  • Relational learning in children with autism. This project investigates how children with autism process visual information. We are currently using a modified match-to-sample task. The task may be solved by representing each display of sample and comparison items as a unique configuration or by learning to respond based on the relationship between the individual items.