Saturday, 14 May 2011

owl head stability

Yesterday I was at an interesting seminar given by Dr Tom Stafford (University of Sheffield) on "Inferring cognitive architectures from high-resolution behavioural data" -- about some interesting new results from psychological experiments on learning motor skills. Apparently it pays to be a bit rubbish at the start of learning, maybe because you're exploring more of the space.

Tom also recounted a great little anecdote about how Edward Thorndike, a late 19th century experimenter, thought the best psychological test subject was "a hungry cat": he repeatedly put the cat in a small box that had a foot pedal to release the door, and timed how long it took the cat to escape. Unsurprisingly, the cat got faster. More surprisingly, when the setup was changed to remove the foot pedal, the cat still pressed where it had been -- because it had learned where to press (or maybe it was going, "where's that fsking foot pedal gone?")

During the post-presentation conversation, the discussion turned to visual perception being hard wired for upright heads, to animals turning their heads upright even when they were upside down, to chickens keeping their heads stationary when their bodies are moved, to owls doing the same, to (inevitably) "there's a YouTube video of that!" A few minuted googling showed that indeed, there is. The bored-looking owl even keeps its head stationary when blindfolded. (The guy doing the waving about looks pretty grim, too.)

owl head stability

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