Animal Cognition


Cognitive Ethology


Typical and potential ranges of animal cognition

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … current repertoire of possibility
  • Knowing is … adequate functioning
  • Learner is … an animal (living organism with a nervous system)
  • Learning is … expanding the repertoire of possibility
  • Teaching is … strategies to occasion expansions of repertoire of possibilities (e.g., training, modeling, challenging)




Animal Cognition is a research domain concerned with observing and testing non-human animals’ cognitive capabilities. Foci include (but are not limited to) perception, attention, discrimination, categorization, training, rule learning, remembering, forgetting, anticipating, extrapolating, goal-seeking, perception of time, tool use, reasoning, problem solving, communication, language-like behavior, symbol use, sudden insight, quantity sense, and self-awareness. Related discourses include:
  • Behavioral Ecology – the study of adaptive phenomena among non-human animals with/in their environments
  • Comparative Cognition – the study and comparison of brain-based processes across species. Comparative Cognitive is often described as similar to Comparative Psychology, but it is typically seen as having a narrower scope.
  • Comparative Neuropsychology – the study and comparison of relationships between behavior neural structures in different animal species
  • Comparative Psychology – the study of mental processes and physical behaviours of non-human species, ranging from insects to primates. By definition, as the name suggests, there is a strong emphasis on cross-species comparisons, especially to humans.


Until about 50 years ago, suggestions about Animal Cognition were typically greeted as naïve anthropomorphisms (i.e., interpreting animal behaviors in terms of human emotions and thoughts) within the established scientific community, and that sensibility still lingers. The underlying issue appears to be an inability to set aside a human/non-human dualism, despite the now-commonplace assumption that animals (including humans) exist on a continuum. Ironically, there is a contrary criticism from some commentators – that is, whereas some critics suggest that Animal Cognition goes too far, others (including some activists, ecologists, and proponents of Plant Cognition) assert it usually doesn’t go far enough.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

G. Romanes; Edward L. Thorndike; Ivan P. Pavlov; Donald Hebb

Status as a Theory of Learning

Animal Cognition is a theory of learning – and one that is proving a useful device for compelling commentators to reveal their deep-seated (usually dualism-based) assumptions and beliefs about learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Animal Cognition is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Animal Cognition is a scientific theory – in part because proponents (unlike many detractors) are explicit about assumptions, metaphors, and definitions surrounding learning and cognition. As well, the evidence base for Animal Cognition is immense, spanning on decades of laboratory-based experiments and naturalistic observations.


  • Behavioral Ecology
  • Comparative Cognition
  • Comparative Neuropsychology
  • Comparative Psychology

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Animal Cognition” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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