Pigeons Know the Secret to Task Switching

June 13, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Photo credit: jans canon/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

We could learn a thing or two from pigeons.

In today’s fast-paced world, being able to rapidly switch from one task to another is a crucial skill — one at which humans generally do not excel. A new study suggests that people could improve their task switching abilities by getting out of their heads and stepping into the brains of birds.

When humans are asked to alternate between simple tasks — for example, judging the number of spaces in a repeating pattern when the color yellow is presented and then classifying the pattern based on its orientation when the color red appears — they make a lot of mistakes compared to trials where they repeat the same task again and again. Researchers refer to this decreased accuracy as a “switch cost.”

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But when researchers challenged pigeons, trained on similar tasks, to switch between them, the pigeons maintained the same level of accuracy as they did when performing a repeating task.

Lead author Christina Meier said in a press release: "We looked at why humans make more errors when they move between two different tasks whereas pigeons don't. Pigeons don't analyse what they see. If they experienced a given situation before, the pigeons will repeat the behaviour that had the best outcome for them in those previous encounters.”

The pigeons use what is known as associative learning, whereby the brain makes a link between a given stimulus (in this case, a task) and a specific response. Humans, on the other hand, complicate things by overthinking, explains Meier.

Co-author Ian McLaren added: "We are not saying that pigeons are super clever. What this research shows is that we can teach pigeons to swap between tasks at no cost to their efficiency.”

The researchers suspect that humans could potentially use similar associative learning processes to become more efficient at completing our tasks, and this would have important implications for education and skill development.

The study, “Task-Switching in Pigeons: Associative Learning or Executive Control?”, is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.

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