Explore categorization strategies

Categorization leverages knowledge for new experiences

Known colloquially as locker, learning by categorization often has a rather negative connotation in the eyes of the public. Yet the basic cognitive ability to categorize offers a significant advantage: it condenses the stream of objects and events in our environment on the basis of commonalities and makes the knowledge we have accumulated usable for new experiences.

In science, the aspects of stimuli that determine categorization have long been the subject of contentious debate. The study conducted by the Bochum-based research team now offers insight into this question – through a research approach using computer-generated stimuli in combination with machine learning analysis of the pecking behavior of pigeons. “We specialize in working with these animals,” said Dr. Roland Pusch, lead author of the study. “The pigeons have a highly developed visual system and show excellent performance in behavioral tests. This makes it an excellent model system to address this issue.

The specific pecking behavior of pigeons facilitates a detailed analysis

The biopsychologists trained the pigeons to distinguish digitally produced images on the screen and divide them into categories by pecking at the screen. “We precisely defined the properties of the image stimuli,” as Pusch describes the process. “Thanks to so-called virtual phylogenesis, we have created two families of objects with 20 members each on the computer. Based on its properties, each object clearly belonged to family X or family Y and could therefore be categorized by animals accordingly. “The main highlight of our research series was the specific pecking behavior of pigeons”, adds Professor Onur Güntürkün, project leader. “After training, the pigeons use pecking to indicate whether an object belongs to a category or not. At the same time, they also mark exactly the place of the object that was decisive for their choice of categorization.

Based on the automated recording, the researchers identified the locations on the objects the pigeons touched as they made their choices on the monitor. “The pecking behavior of individual animals was very consistent. This leads us to the conclusion that animals value very specific characteristics of stimuli,” says Pusch. “Interestingly, despite identical behaviors, these preferences are different in each individual; in other words, each pigeon has its own specific characteristics that it considers important in the two families of objects. This suggests that learning categorization is not limited to a single strategy of ‘learning.

According to Pusch and Güntürkün, the combination of virtual phylogenesis and machine learning approach offers a lot of potential for further research in the field of categorization learning. For example, the method opens the possibility of studying species-specific behavioral strategies in comparative experiments in addition to its sensory basis. Beyond behavioral analysis, the neural processes that trigger categorization learning in the brain could also be explored in detail.

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