Take 10 with... Alex Taylor

Senior Lecturer Dr Alex Taylor, Director of the Animal Minds Lab in the School of Psychology, gives us 10 minutes of his time to talk cumulative cultural evolution, creative challenges and having low expectations.

Dr Alex Taylor, Director of the Animal Minds Lab in the School of Psychology
Dr Alex Taylor, Director of the Animal Minds Lab in the School of Psychology

1.  Describe your research topic to us in ten words or less.

I want to understand how animals think.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms’!

I’m a comparative psychologist. I compare the minds of animals to humans, particularly young children, in order to see where there are similarities and differences between them.

I’ve chosen to work with smart birds – New Caledonian crows and kea. The crows use tools, which is a really rare behaviour in the animal kingdom. We can understand what effect tools might have had on the crows’ intelligence (and on our own) by studying this species.

I work with the kea because they are one of the most playful species on the planet. It’s really interesting to try and understand what a species that has such a high level of play and sociality might be thinking.

My third choice of species is the domestic dog, for two reasons. The first being that I really love dogs [InSCide Scoop note: we’re totally with you on this one Alex!] and secondly, there’s been this amazing unplanned experiment over the last 30,000 years where humans have domesticated dogs, and I’m really interested in the results – how have we shaped dogs’ minds?

3.  What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

My day-to-day is mainly spent on emails to my collaborators, admin to keep my lab going, designing experiments, problem solving, and commenting on or writing manuscripts. These days it is hard to carve out a lot of time to spend with the animals I work with. Generally, I try to function as the problem solver for my PhD students. I’m helping them out by talking through challenges and making sure we’re asking the right questions of the animals.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

I really enjoy the creative challenge. It is hard to create a problem that asks a really specific question of an animal without using language to ask that question. How do we create situations where an animal can show us how it is really thinking?

5.  Tell us about something that has surprised you or amused you in the course of your research (it could be a discovery, an anecdote or even a funny incident).

There are so many things I could say! Something that stands out for me happened at the start of the year. I was down in Christchurch doing a workshop with my PhD students to improve their skills for training and working with the kea, and help with their welfare.

Two kea were in the little river that runs through their enclosure, both perched on a log, rocking it backwards and forwards together, so it splashed in the water, just for fun. I knew kea played a lot but this really stood out, the kea were taking a break to play together. We all stopped working and pulled out our phones to video them, and then we started thinking of other ways we could get them to play like that. It’s really nice when those things happen; it’s such a feel-good experience when you see these animals doing the kind of behaviours you’re interested in, apropos of nothing. It’s a lazy, summer afternoon and they just want to play. It makes the job feel really fun when you get to see the animals having fun and doing their own thing. It gives you a really strong drive to gather some data around that, to try and show what they’re feeling and how they’re thinking in that situation.

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

There are a lot of challenges in my research – people say to never work with animals or children!

I think the biggest challenge is dealing with the high failure rate. If a third of our pilot experiments are working out, that’s amazing. But that means that the majority of the time our pilots fail, which can be hard to take. The way I deal with that is to set my expectations really low. That way it is the successes, rather than the failures, that surprise me. I still struggle to do this sometimes though. Even after 12 years I can find it so hard not to raise my expectations when we design a really nice pilot. You need a thick skin to keep having this general optimism that at some point one of the pilots will work – but maybe it’s not going to be today!

7.  What questions have emerged as a result of your recent work? Is there one particular line of inquiry that has become clear?

Recently we’ve been getting this great data that shows that the New Caledonian crows can mentally represent their tools. They have a mental template of a specific tool design in their head, which they use to make tools. That’s really exciting. As humans our ideas evolve, for example, our ideas of what a knife is have changed – from a stone axe through to a pen knife – over time. The fact that crows have a mental representation of their tools gives them a way to also evolve their ideas of what a tool is and can be.

The big question this is opening up is whether crows are a model species for understanding this process, which we term ‘cumulative cultural evolution’. So by studying how ideas evolve across the minds of crows, we can understand more about how ideas evolve across our own minds, and where this ability came from.

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

Throughout my career I’ve seen how the general public reacts to some of our research and findings and I’ve been really curious about what it’s doing for them. There’s a body of research that suggests that the more you can show that an animal is like us, and thinks like us, the more moral concern we’ll have for that animal. So I am now running studies with humans to explore this further.

Long-term, as we proceed further with our research, I hope that our work will provide a chance for people to connect more with animals, connect more with the environment and create more action on this front. There’s already a fantastic conservation effort with the kea, for example, with the Kea Conservation Trust, but I’d really like to be able to mobilise more New Zealanders to help this endangered species by showing people how special the minds of kea are. I think it’s a good way to connect the public with the animals around them, and give them a deeper appreciation of animals, by showing that they’re not just charismatic animals, but that there are amazing things going on in their minds as well.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, or even outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

My biggest collaboration at present is a multinational one between our lab [Animal Minds] here in Auckland, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Queensland. This is a huge team effort that’s producing some great results.

One of the things that really benefits me is that I get to work alongside some incredible scientists who all have quite different opinions and ideas about the data we generate. It’s great being able to discuss the experiments and data, and debate what our results mean. The work I’ve done as part of this collaboration over the last two years has given me such optimism in science as a process. Science has such power to resolve debates between people who have very different views by generating data.

9.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Have lower expectations about everything! Good things happen very infrequently in science, and you have to develop a really thick skin because most things don’t work out. I’ve developed that skin now, but it would have been nice not to have had to learn that the hard way and instead, just have had low expectations from my PhD onwards – I would have then been pleasantly surprised every time something did work out as opposed to getting my hopes up and then seeing them dashed! I’ve become used to these lows and highs, but now I see my PhD students going through this and having to learn this lesson anew. It’s the untold story behind every scientist.

10. What drives you to keep doing your research?

It’s just the passion. I don’t know why it is, but every time I look into the eyes of an animal I get this overwhelming curiosity about what it is thinking and why. It is so hard to know what these thoughts are, which makes it really rewarding to make even a small inroad and be able to say with some certainty what an animal is thinking in a specific situation. However, we are so far off really understand animal minds. We might never know, for example, if animals are conscious in the same way that humans are. So I think it is also the mystery that captivates me. I am really curious to know the answer to a question that might be impossible to answer.