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Bird Brains and the Monty Hall Dilemma

Jessica Watkins's picture

The "Monty Hall Dilemma" (MHD) is a well known probability puzzle in which a player tries to guess which of three doors conceals a desirable prize. After an initial choice is made, one of the remaining doors is opened, revealing no prize. The player is then given the option of staying with their initial guess or switching to the other unopened door. Most people opt to stay with their initial guess, despite the fact that switching doubles the probability of winning. A series of experiments investigated whether pigeons (Columba livia), like most humans, would fail to maximize their expected winnings in a version of the MHD. Birds completed multiple trials of a standard MHD, with the three response keys in an operant chamber serving as the three doors and access to mixed grain as the prize. Across experiments, the probability of gaining reinforcement for switching and staying was manipulated, and birds adjusted their probability of switching and staying to approximate the optimal strategy. Replication of the procedure with human participants showed that humans failed to adopt optimal strategies, even with extensive training.

      --Walter T. Herbranson and Julia Schroeder, Are Birds Smarter Than Mathematicians? Pigeons (Columba livia) Perform Optimally on a Version of the Monty Hall Dilemma


"Bird Brains" and the Fuschia Dot

The study quoted above has been the subject of much thought and contention within the scientific community.  While attempting to solve the puzzle, birds maximized their gains by discovering that switching doors every time would lead to a higher rate of success, even if they did not receive a reward each time.  They quickly learned which strategy would win them more in the long run, and stuck with it.  Humans, however, used the results from each successive trial to make a judgment as to whether or not they would switch doors, which lead to them switching only 2/3 of the time and thus receiving less rewards than the bird participants.  They did not maximize gains, but rather used past experiences as the standard by which they would act.

To think that birds are more capable of solving something like the Monty Hall Dilemma than human beings might be unsettling for some; for others, it surely seems like a swift kick to humanity’s ego.  New meaning has been given to the term “bird-brained.”  Birds may not necessarily be "smarter" than humans--their thought/learning processes are just significantly different.  All we, as humans, have to do is embrace the fact that differences between us and our avian friends may lead to new discovery about the effectiveness of unconscious learning over disciplined, conscious thought.  Whether the differences between bird and human brains stem from a divergence in structure or usage is only one important aspect of the comparison between the conscious and unconscious selves in both species.

…our conscious selves are rarely “in control”… Furthermore, they are, in many circumstances, a less trustworthy guide to adaptive behavior than is the unconscious community with which they interact.
        --Paul Grobstein, Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond: The Brain, Story Sharing, and Social Organization

The main difference between the human mind and bird mind (perhaps not the main difference, but the difference that seems to be most pressing in terms of the MHD) lies in the fact that birds do not possess a traditional “mind” at all.  The human mind consists of all faculties employed in conscious thought and processing; it is the deep, thought-provoking center of the body.  The neocortex, a more recent evolutionary addition to the human (and more generally, mammalian) brain, might be identified as the physical “mind.”  It is the center, the cerebral structure through which information passes that has already been transmitted by other, more basic, parts of the brain and is transformed into coherent thought and a complete image of the self in relation to the outside environment.  It is the fuschia dot, according to Grobstein’s diagram; it is the resident “story teller” within the brain, weaving a logical tale with characters from the surrounding world.  It is this fuschia dot that is responsible for seeing daily occurrences through the lens of past experience and producing subjective thought and conscious processing.


                                                                                                                    Conscious Vs. Unconscious

Conscious, subjective thought sets humans apart from other animals, and is cause for what seems to be a superior view of ourselves.  However, our performance in the MHD as compared to birds challenges that notion that our thought is much different from that of other creatures at all.  

The ability of birds to perform so well on the MHD raises questions about the effectiveness of their unconscious processing.  In other fields that require gradual learning, such as language, unconscious thought is key in retaining facts and general patterns (those who speak a language fluently do not consciously think about the words coming out of their mouth or how they are piecing together their grammar—it flows naturally from their unconscious).  Is it possible that conscious thought, the very thing upon which humans pride themselves in the animal kingdom, can get in the way of tasks that may require a less reflective type of learning? (See the introduction of this MIT thesis, which discusses how learning that takes place only in the mind can be counter-productive to a more tactile type of learning.)

Perhaps birds do not boast an internal “story teller,” and thus experience a “cleaner” type of thinking.  Unlike humans, birds may not be using their fuschia dots to reflect on their place in the world or the long-term ramifications of their actions; they might be simply absorbing information from their environment (the three doors of the MHD, the way in which one door opens and reveals no prize, etc.) and learning from it using patterns, gradually building up their knowledge unconsciously.  In contrast, is human thinking more akin to something conscious and “cluttered?”


Perhaps birds do not boast an internal “story teller,” and thus experience a “cleaner” type of human thinking more akin to something conscious and “cluttered?”



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The possible lack of a fuschia dot in birds’ brains would mean their other cranial structures are the sole processors of information (birds are operating on their “biological potentials” alone?), and thus do not experience a “bi-directional exchange” between themselves and the would-be neocortex.  

Information about what is outside the individual reaches the mind only via successive interactions between that and the body, between the body and the nervous system, and between the portion of the nervous system outside the mind and that inside it.
      --Ian Morton and Paul Grobstein, The Brain and Social Organization / Culture

Rather, “bird thought” may be considered uni-directional, meaning information is taken in from the surrounding environment and absorbed directly; it is not thought about, mulled over or put into the context of experience and logic.  The reflective nature of the fuschia dot may obscure unconscious processing in favor of concentrating on reaching an absolute, correct answer.  It may prefer “right” answers to those that are “less wrong,” which seems to be its downfall in the case of learning unconsciously something like the MHD puzzle.  The fuschia dot may worry too much about reaching a correct answer than accepting the fact that absolute knowledge is probably unattainable, that with changing environments comes fluid knowledge that is set in anything but stone.

Discussion about renaming bird brain structures to reflect a thought and brain evolution more akin to that of humans seems to contradict this.  Scientists state that “…some birds have evolved cognitive abilities that are far more complex than in many mammals,” and argue that birds do indeed possess a structure similar to the human neocortex.  However, the thought processes that go on in this fuschia dot are different than those of human brains; what scientists consider bird “conscious thought” is not necessarily equivalent to human conscious thought and all that arises from it.  


Limitations of a "Science/Stubborn Brain?"

Then again, differences in brain structure between birds and humans may be only one of several discrepancies.  The study quoted in the beginning of this piece makes it clear through data and analysis of birds' versus humans' performance on the MHD that two different types of probability are employed by the two species when deciding whether or not to switch doors: classical and empirical probability.  Herbranson and Schroeder state that humans make use of classical probability, "an approach to probability that is based on a complete a priori analysis of the situation...It requires no data collection."  Birds, they say, use empirical probability that relies on data from multiple trials and builds conclusions based on prior results.  However, when the data from the study is closely analyzed it seems that the opposite is true: humans are making a decision based on empirical probability and data from past trials, switching from their original door only 67% of the time, while birds are making a decision based on classical probability and sticking with one conclusion (switching from their original door) 100% of the time.                                                                                                            

...humans seem less able to trust in one answer.


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Is this a function of humans' "scientific brain?"  Our ability and propensity to tirelessly ask questions and conduct experiments until we find answers places us above many other species, but in the context of the MHD might be less than useful.  While birds are able to recognize a pattern, draw a conclusion and decide that this conclusion will apply each time, humans seem less able to trust in one answer.  We measure the probability that behind our door will lie a prize, and we act on what seems like a gut instinct based on collection of past data.  Even though it has been mathematically proven that switching doors will result in a prize 67% of the time (as opposed to the 33% chance of receiving a prize if one chooses to stay), human beings still take their chances and stay based on a few prior trials.  Why can't we accept this fact?  Why does our need to question override what has already been proven?

Perhaps the human brain is to blame.  Perhaps we are all born with the capacity and desire to explore using the scientific method: question, experiment, conclude, possibly experiment again, and ask more questions.  Perhaps we are all born with the brain of a scientist.  Birds are probably not.  We consciously question authority and the "right" answer if it conflicts with something we instinctively (unconsciously?) feel or see, even if in the long run it might be true (as in the case of the MHD and switching doors).  Birds do not.  So the difference between bird and human thought/learning may stem from something much simpler than structural or physiological discrepancies--perhaps we, as humans, are just not ready to accept certain facts until we have proven or disproven them ourselves.  Perhaps there is a stubborn scientists living inside all of us—the question is, does this scientist reside in the human unconscious or conscious mind?  Both facets of the mind can be stubborn in their own way.  The unconscious may persist in staying with the original door, and the conscious may persist in trying to oppose the decisions of the unconscious. A lack of concentration while writing a paper comes from the unconscious and the conscious is fully aware that it cannot get work done; the unconscious may be set in its ways, and the only way to overcome it seems to be through conscious reflection.  If changing the ways of the unconscious is a matter of conscious control, then is it possible for humans to become consciously “better” at solving the MHD if they were to approach the puzzle having previously thought about the statistics associated with it?


Implications of an "Empty Slate" in Education
A brain similar to that of birds (one that is not fully “developed” in the human sense, but is capable of unconscious learning as it has not yet been marked by deep, conscious thought) would be useful for study.  Enter babies.  Research has shown that humans are born not completely ignorant, but rather with a “naïve” sense of psychology and physics (for example, reacting to changes in facial expression and having a vague sense of the placement of solid objects); it is argued that they are born somewhat “programmed,” and that this is what allows them to build knowledge and grow smarter.  It is also argued that they cannot be born with a “clean slate” as they need some information upon which to build other thought.  How does this work for birds?  If they are not born as “empty slates,” what type of knowledge do they initially possess, and how might this help them in solving problems using unconscious learning?  Is the difference between their initial knowledge and ours the key to discovering why we are so hung up on conscious thinking?  The answer could mean everything to the field of education, where conscious learning is often what is most stressed.

Education is dominated by the idea that conscious learning--the drilling of facts into young minds, hours of memorization--is the most efficient way to help students learn and absorb material they will use later on in life.  With conscious learning there is very little room for guessing.  There is always a "right" answer; there is always a certain, set way to do things to reach a fixed goal.  Students complete high school and are expected to go to college with a future career in mind.  Oftentimes, this career may require graduate school or similar training that, while furthering a student's knowledge, only serves one purpose and does not apply to all aspects of life.  Ultimately, it seems that the idea of preparation oriented toward a fixed goal--whether it be to go to medical school or become a successful business person--gets in the way of broad-spectrum learning and forces students to concentrate only on what lies in the path directly ahead of them.  It forces us to ask whether students are fully exploring the world and its wealth of knowledge or just wandering on a set road, blind to the happenings on either side of them.

They came to school with many interests, which he [John Dewey] classified in his 1899 publication The School and Society as "the interest in conversation, or communication; in inquiry, or finding out things; in making things, or construction; and in artistic expression." These, he maintained were "the natural resources, the uninvested capital, upon which depends the active growth of the child"

--Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society on John Dewey



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Perhaps we are not as "progressive" as we ought to be.  Perhaps our fuschia dot is responsible for our need to plan for the future to the extent that education is specified for particular goals, rather than a lifetime of learning.

The fuschia dot may correspond not only to the desire for and acknowledgement of a definite "right answer," but the pull toward a set future goal and all the specific training/preparation that comes with it.  Maybe this is why our thinking is so "cluttered" compared to that of birds?  Maybe we do not have the luxury of being able to unconsciously absorb material for what it is because we are burdened with concerns about the future--it is our "conscious" cross to bear.  Birds are just as free as they have stereotypically been portrayed for ages.  They do not worry about MCATs or law school admission; they are not concerned with applying their nest-building skills to a future career.  Instinct guides their actions, not necessarily "planning" or "preparation" in the traditional sense of the words that implies intentionality.

If we truly harbor multiple selves, it could be that our fuschia dot, in its hurry to conjure up a single image of the self in relation to the rest of the world, is resisting the natural bend toward having these selves live together (but separately) in harmony.

Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another...The idea is that interesting properties of the whole (intelligence, decision-making, emotions, moral sensibility) can be understood in terms of the interaction of components that themselves lack these properties. This is how computers work; there is every reason to believe that this is how we work, too.

--Paul Bloom, First Person Plural

Our fuschia dot is readily-molded by culture, as its "story telling" is receptive to the intricacies of modern society and outside opinion.  As information that has already been received by other parts of the brain filters in, the fuschia dot uses its arsenal of past experience and current understanding to process it and form opinions that are not only complete, but correspond to a single mind.  Culture looks down on discrepancies between thought and action (have you ever heard the word "hypocrite" used in a positive context?); therefore, the fuschia dot understands that its role is to synthesize the various "selves" into one whole.  It is this single "self" that is recognized in the outside world and corresponds to a certain person.

Are birds concerned, even unconsciously, with synthesizing their competing "selves" for the benefit of the bird culture surrounding them?  Probably not, considering this "bird culture" is slight to nonexistent.  Birds can indulge all of their "selves" (assuming they share this complexity with humans) and devote more time to unconscious learning, rather than concentrating on forming a complete image that may silence one or more of the individual "selves" for the sake of the whole.  They can humor the self focused on eating, breathing and sleeping; they can appease the self that is set on learning how to overcome the MHD.  Instead of insisting upon a fixed course of action to accomplish a goal they toss away the word "goal" and instead focus on the present task at hand, whether it be solving a complex puzzle or building a shelter out of twigs.  Taking a lesson from the bird brain could be more valuable than we think.


Other Interestng Links:

Benefits of Unconscious Thought in Decision-Making

A New Version of the MHD

Try Out the MHD

The Three Doors of Serendp: Putting the MHD in the Context of Understanding

How Babies Think