Monday open question: can invertebrates be ‘cognitive’?

Janelia Farm, the research center the Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently announced their upcoming research focuses. One of them was controversial: mechanistic cognitive neuroscience. Here’s what they had to say about it:

How does the brain enable cognition? We are developing an integrated program in which tool-builders, biologists, and theorists collaborate to clear the technical, conceptual, and computational hurdles that have kept the most intriguing aspects of cognition beyond the purview of mechanistic investigation. The program will establish tight links across our existing genetic model systems —flies, fish, and rodents— and exploit their complementary strengths. We aim to make the fly the benchmark for reductionist explanations of neural processes underlying complex behavior, leveraging conceptual research by mammalian neuroscientists. The fly has strong potential as a model for rapid mechanistic insights, due to its small brain size, the likelihood of obtaining a complete wiring diagram of its brain, and increasingly powerful methods for measuring and manipulating genetically defined populations of cells in behaving animals. We expect this research to reveal strategies for better understanding the more sophisticated neural and behavioral features of vertebrates. In turn, we expect our vertebrate research to expose complex computational mechanisms, some of which we can study at a detailed level in the fly.

Why was this so controversial? This sentence: “In turn, we expect our vertebrate research to expose complex computational mechanisms, some of which we can study at a detailed level in the fly“. Yes, the humble fly may or may not have cognitive states.

What are some cognitive behaviors that a fly can perform? They use reinforcement learning, can attend to things, have visual place memory. Other invertebrates can recognize faces and perform complex path integration. On the other hand, they have very poor linguistic abilities.

It’s a truth of biology that theories rarely survive contact with new types of data. There is a kind of clarity from knowing the exact neural circuitry and dynamics that a minimal neural circuit needs. If I were studying, say, attention in primates I would be interested in the precise mechanisms that another species uses to accomplish a task similar to what I’m studying. There’s no guarantee that it will be the same mechanism – but is it so unreasonable? Is there a reason that insects would not display cognitive behavior?

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4 thoughts on “Monday open question: can invertebrates be ‘cognitive’?

  1. “There’s no guarantee that it will be the same mechanism – but is it so unreasonable?”
    it is highly unreasonable. take the specific case of visual attention – 1) there is no hard evidence that flies perceive objects in the same way that primates do, 2) in the case that they don’t perceive objects with discrete borders, what does attention even mean, and how would one draw the parallels to primate visual attention?
    at some level, everything is everything, but at that level, nothing is interesting or meaningful anymore

    • Let’s turn this question around for a second. Is it unreasonable for an invertebrate researcher to read the monkey literature for ideas? Taking again the idea of visual attention, reading the monkey literature would let them know that there are multiple types of attention, that acetylcholine is (sometimes) involved, and so on. These seem like things that the invertebrate researcher to think about! Especially given how frequently motifs and mechanisms are conserved by evolution. And unless you think that monkey visual attention literature has already uncovered all the possible mechanisms of its attention, has really drilled down on the assumptions and ambiguities about all its concepts, it seems like it would be useful to bring these ideas and concepts back up the animal hierarchy as well.

      • <> certainly not, but i would disagree with the conclusion <>

        and i would offer this analogy: let’s say you wanted to understand how anti-lock brakes worked on a car. you could study the brakes on a rollerblade, and there would be some shared principles, but it is at its core, missing the main point.

        there exist aspects of human cognition for which you can draw analogies in lower model organisms, but in the process will have lost the essence of the question, and the answers that you find will inherently not be able to fully address the question as it is posed with respect to humans. hence the belief that using the fly as a general model for cognition is unreasonable.

  2. “Is it unreasonable for an invertebrate researcher to read the monkey literature for ideas?” certainly not, but i would disagree with the conclusion “it seems like it would be useful to bring these ideas and concepts back up the animal hierarchy as well.”

    and i would offer this analogy: let’s say you wanted to understand how anti-lock brakes worked on a car. you could study the brakes on a rollerblade, and there would be some shared principles, but it is at its core, missing the main point.

    there exist aspects of human cognition for which you can draw analogies in lower model organisms, but in the process will have lost the essence of the question, and the answers that you find will inherently not be able to fully address the question as it is posed with respect to humans. hence the belief that using the fly as a general model for cognition is unreasonable.

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