I have various research goals that derive from a broad interest in how animals seek, extract and process information from the environment in order to make optimal decisions. The two current main research projects I am pursuing are:
1. Understanding the adaptive value of emotional states in humans and other animals.
In some circles of behavioural biology the phrase
“anthropomorphism” is a dreadful insult. However, recent animal welfare
research is objectively and rigorously examining the possibility that animals
experience recognisable emotional states such as anxiety, depression, happiness
etc. Imputing emotions in non-human animals actually opens up a world of
testable hypotheses on the behaviours, cognition, physiology and neurobiology we
would expect to see associated with these states. This research begin from the
premise that emotions did not spring fully formed into existence solely during Homo sapiens evolutionary history;
emotions are an ancestral trait that have adaptive value and are effected by
the physiology and neurobiology that humans share with other animals.
I am focusing specifically on the adaptive value of
anxiety in humans and other animals. In humans, anxiety is an emotion
associated with preparing the individual for dealing with a dangerous world. It
makes humans more vigilant for threatening stimuli, causes them to pay more
attention to these stimuli and increases their expectation of them occurring.
Physiologically the release of stress hormones associated with anxiety prepares
an individual for a fight-or-flight scenario. In many ways, these processes
mirror the behavioural, physiological and cognitive consequences of increasing
the predation risk for animals. They increase their vigilance patterns, become
more risk-averse (e.g. staying closer to refuge) and increase their levels of
stress hormones (e.g. corticosterone).
There is an additional puzzle to anxiety, why is it sometimes generalised (humans are worried about all manner of life events) and sometimes specific (a phobia about, for example, public speaking)? I have developed a theoretical framework for understanding the aetiology of generalised vs. specific anxiety and am now in the process of testing this theory. An essential outcome of this research is the welfare implication of animals having emotional states. If the animals that we rely on for food and companionship can be anxious, then it adds an extra weight of responsibility to how we treat them. I approach this problem by exploring the functional implications of various environmental enrichment features for captive animals.
2. Discrimination and generalisation of temporal information.
This project examines how animals learn about stimuli in the environment. Specifically it looks at how we can reconcile the theories about how animals learn the contingencies between stimuli (does B always follow A?) and how animals learn about the temporal properties/relationships of those stimuli (does B follow A if A is longer or shorter?). At present one group of theories can explain how animals learn about contingencies between stimuli based on the physical properties of those stimuli (e.g. colour, amplitude, frequency) whilst another group of theories explains how animals time the duration of stimuli and the intervals between those stimuli. I am currently carrying out experiments studying whether animals learn about the temporal properties of stimuli (their duration and variability in that duration) in the same way that they learn about the physical properties. For example, we know that if an animal is exposed to a particular frequency tone but never reinforced, then subsequently teaching the animal to associate that tone with a rewarding outcome (e.g. food) is much harder (a phenomenon termed latent inhibition). But is this also true for a stimulus with a particular duration, is it harder to subsequently train the animal that other stimuli of the same duration signal a food reward, versus stimuli of a different duration?