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Cognition. 2013 Aug;128(2):113-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.03.014. Epub 2013 May 10.

Perceptual categories enable pattern generalization in songbirds.

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Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, USA.


Since Chomsky's pioneering work on syntactic structures, comparative psychologists interested in the study of language evolution have targeted pattern complexity, using formal mathematical grammars, as the key to organizing language-relevant cognitive processes across species. This focus on formal syntactic complexity, however, often disregards the close interaction in real-world signals between the structure of a pattern and its constituent elements. Whether such features of natural auditory signals shape pattern generalization is unknown. In the present paper, we train birds to recognize differently patterned strings of natural signals (song motifs). Instead of focusing on the complexity of the overtly reinforced patterns, we ask how the perceptual groupings of pattern elements influence the generalization pattern knowledge. We find that learning and perception of training patterns is agnostic to the perceptual features of underlying elements. Surprisingly, however, these same features constrain the generalization of pattern knowledge, and thus its broader use. Our results demonstrate that the restricted focus of comparative language research on formal models of syntactic complexity is, at best, insufficient to understand pattern use.

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