“I want to communicate…how important it is to study non-humans, both to understand them…but also to understand ourselves…”
Assistant Professor of Psychology & Anthropology, University of Michigan
By: Michelle Johnson (10/23/20)
Were you always interested in the same area of science and research?
Doing this kind of research was almost a random series of fortuitous events for me. I actually went to college with the intent to study something completely different. I was interested in physics, and I even declared that as my major, but then realized I didn’t want to continue. I had a crisis that I think is probably familiar to undergrads who don’t know what to major in. Then I heard about a class that involved doing research with primates, and because that sounded neat, I applied to be in the lab methods class. I don’t know why they accepted me into the class, but I got in and this experience really inspired me.
What are some questions that are exciting to you right now?
One thing I’m really excited about is looking at cognitive control or executive function. There has been a strong focus on social cognition in primates, such as how they reason about other social actors. I think because social cognition has been such a fruitful area of inquiry, there’s been less focus on decision making and executive function. But these are really important areas for understanding what’s special about humans. Humans do things that are kind of incredible to imagine other animals showing—planning years in the future for example. It’s difficult to study because there is often not a good way to test some of these features of human cognition in non-verbal animals, but it’s fun because that means we get to invent the ways to study it.
The main thing I want to communicate is how important it is to study these non-humans, both to understand them because they are really intrinsically interesting, but also to understand ourselves by putting humans back in nature in some sense. I think this leads to a new understanding of what it is that humans are doing, so I hope that people who have never thought about studying animals might now consider how research with animals can contribute to these big questions about human nature.
Is there anything that you think people would be surprised about what it’s like working with non-human primates?
One of the most surprising things is how often they trick us and do things that you didn’t anticipate. That’s why they can be challenging to work with, but also why it’s fun. It’s happened several times where I’ve designed a new study, and then instead of doing what we expected the chimpanzee responds, “Well, I can do this a better way, if I go grab this really long stick and poke something.” It’s kind of annoying in the moment, but then in retrospect, you realize, “Wow, they’re showing this amazing insight to solve this problem in a way that we didn’t even realize they could do.”
Has your work changed your views or how you move through the world?
One thing that’s really deepened for me over the years is how much we owe these animals and how important it is that our research is not just about them, but for them and benefiting them in some way. We play these fun games in primate sanctuaries, but our hope is that by supporting the work of the sanctuaries, we’re also really supporting chimpanzee conservation and welfare. These are crucial conservation organizations for rescuing primates from the bushmeat and pet trade in Africa. Our kind of work is often interesting for the public, so the hope is that we’re bringing resources that are helpful for the sanctuaries’ goals, and bringing publicity to these kinds of locations.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
One piece of advice I’ve gotten, but also that I give, is to grab research opportunities when they present themselves, and to find out what you are interested in and then pursue that. There’s a lot of value also to learning what you don’t like to do. Sometimes there’s a level of anxiety about, “What if I make this choice and it doesn’t turn out well?” But many people have the experience that their pathway to science is sort of meandering. It’s those experiences where you realize, “I don’t really like this” that turns you towards what you are interested in. I think being easy on yourself while figuring out what you want to do is important.