Animal Cognition


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 constructs and discourses include:
  • Animal Intelligence – a thread of Animal Cognition that seeks to make sense of species-specific modes of “intelligence” – that is, to understand intelligence not in terms of human skills, but in terms of species-appropriate actions and adaptations and environment-specific demands and problems
  • Animal Learning – a branch of Psychology concerned with learning among nonhuman animals. Animal Learning might be construed as a subset of Animal Cognition, but prevailing sensibilities are sometimes quite disparate between the two domains. In particular, there is a strong tendency for research in Animal Learning to be more narrowly focused by Behaviorisms.
  • Animal Metacognition – the capability of being aware of one’s perceptions and thoughts as they happen (see Metacognition). There is broad consensus that many nonhuman primates, especially the great apes, can manifest such awareness. Many other species, including dogs/wolves, elephants, whales, dolphins, some rodents, some octopuses, and some birds have demonstrated adaptive metacognitive behaviors.
  • 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 Neuroscience – a branch of Neuroscience that focuses on the similarities and differences among nervous and sensory systems of animals
  • Comparative Psychology (Animal 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.
  • Ethology – the study of animal behavior under natural conditions. Ethology intersects modestly with Behaviorisms around observation-based studies, but quickly parts company around laboratory-based studies and/or deliberate efforts to manipulate or train responses. Subdiscourses include:
    • Cognitive Ethology – a branch of Ethology that takes conscious awareness into consideration, based on the premise that deliberate attention and mediated intention influence behavior
    • Human Ethology – a branch of Ethology focused on the study of human behavior, often characterized as blending biological and psychological (as well as, in some cases, sociological and anthropological) accounts of human action
    • Neuroethology – a branch of Ethology that attends to neural processes and neural structures associated with animal behaviors
  • Insect Cognition – research into the perception, attention, spatial cognition, emotions, memory, group cognition, tool use, and problem solving of insects. Most work in Insect Cognition has been focused on bees, ants, and wasps.
  • Prepared Learning (Preparedness) (Martin Seligman, 1990s) – the species-specific (i.e., biologically determined) extent to which an organism is ready/able to learn a particular competence or to associate two stimuli. Associated constructs include:
    • Contraprepared Learning – learning by an organism that is incompatible with the evolution of its species, typically resulting is weak or fraught associations and/or performance
    • Unprepared Learning – learning by an organism for which its species lacks a biological disposition, but that it is nonetheless able to develop a viable level of mastery
  • Sensitive Soul (Aristotle, 300s BCE) – a soul able to perceive and to act on perceptions (compare: Vegetative Soul under Plant Cognition; Rational Soul under Primate Cognition)
  • Sentience – the most basic form of Consciousness. A being with Sentience can have positive/pleasurable experiences and negative/painful experiences. Variations include:
    • Consentience – a vaguely defined level/form of consciousness that is attributed to nonhuman animals
  • Zoosemiotics (Thomas Sebeok, 1970s) – a branch of Biosemiotics (see Semiotics) that is concerned with animal forms of knowing – that is, semiotic processes shared by animals, which includes cross-species communication and signs that are not necessarily communicative (e.g., camouflage)


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.


  • Animal Intelligence
  • Animal Learning
  • Animal Metacognition
  • Behavioral Ecology
  • Cognitive Ethology
  • Comparative Cognition
  • Comparative Neuropsychology
  • Comparative Neuroscience
  • Comparative Psychology (Animal Psychology)
  • Consentience
  • Contraprepared Learning
  • Ethology
  • Human Ethology
  • Insect Cognition
  • Neuroethology
  • Prepared Learning (Preparedness)
  • Sensitive Soul (Nutritive Soul)
  • Sentience
  • Unprepared Learning
  • Zoosemiotics

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Animal Cognition” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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