Thursday, November 23, 2017
Comparative Perspectives on Symbol Use

Everyday navigation requires complex spatial behavior, including using familiar landmarks, and remembering and comparing distances and directions. As humans, we aid our navigation through the use of symbolic representations of space such as photographs, maps, and scale models. How does such representational understanding develop? We have been approaching this topic in two manners.

What do chimpanzees understand about physical representations of space? Exploring these types abilities in the chimpanzee offers insights into this developmental progression in young human children, and furthers our understanding of this species’ cognitive capabilities. For example, we have shown that chimpanzees are able to solve a task in which they must use a scale model as a source of information regarding the location of food in an enclosure. In our first study, most of the chimpanzees immediately found the hidden food at levels above chance, indicating that they were using the model to inform their search. A series of studies (1) documented this ability, (2) discussed a difficulty for this species posed by search tasks, and (3) demonstrated that chimps can take into account both the landmark and geometric information offered by the model.

What are the roles of creator’s intent and inhibitory control in young children’s use of symbols? In past studies, 2.5-year-old children typically seem to have difficulty understanding 3D representations of space. Using a task similar to the one we designed for chimpanzees, we have been able to characterize the children’s poor performance as stemming from a difficulty recognizing the symbolic intent of the model-creator and a difficulty inhibiting competing information from previous experiences with the scale model. This indicates that, contrary to previous research with this age group, 2.5-year-olds are able to use three-dimensional symbols of space; however, this young symbol-learner requires salient cues to intent and situations in which inhibitory demands are minimized.

Relevant Publications:

Kuhlmeier, V.A. (2005). Symbolic insight and perseveration: Two problems facing young children on symbolic retrieval tasks.
Journal of Cognition and Development, 6, 365-371.

Kuhlmeier, V.A., & Boysen, S.T. (2002). Chimpanzees' recognition of the spatial and object similarities between a scale model and its referent.
Psychological Science, 13,

Kuhlmeier, V.A., & Boysen, S.T. (2001). The effect of response contingencies on chimpanzee scale model task performance.
Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115,

Kuhlmeier, V.A.; Boysen, S.T; & Mukobi, K.M. (1999). Scale model comprehension by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes).
Journal of Comparative Psychology, 113 (4),


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