Scientific Sense Podcast

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Fast decisions

Recent research from the Laboratory of Behavioral Ecology and Evolution at Seoul National University demonstrates that birds, specifically magpies, make fast decisions based on human gaze. Clearly, selection advantages have provided them with the ability to both collect and process information from human gaze efficiently. Although the human gaze, on the surface, appears to be a binary phenomenon – present or absent, it is possible that the birds may be using finer details of the available information in the decision processes.

If the speed of decision-making is a skill that is passed on from generation to generation, then, it should point to observable differences in the bird brain. If the skill has been improving over time, then, it is unlikely that it is an acquired skill. If the structure of the brain, indeed, is changing, it is interesting to think about what is happening in the case of humans. The speed of decisions was critical early in human evolution but it seems less important now. If evolution did select for speed, then the current crop of humans are thrust into an unfamiliar environment. Excluding certain war situations, video games and financial trading (that is largely taken up by computers), the quality of decisions is more important than the speed of making them. In other words, the magpie that is able to discern finer shades of human gaze by analysis may ultimately win the game. 

Trigger happy Homo-sapiens may have been successful in eliminating slower Neanderthals but one has to wonder if this is another evolutionary quirk, that resulted in sub-optimal outcomes.

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