Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2008 | Features

Great (and Small) Minds Think Alike

By Jen Knights
A pioneering UI psychology professor uncovers surprising facts about humans and other animals.

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Ed Wasserman may have experienced the first inkling of his future career while watching The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Or maybe it was Godzilla. The point is, Wasserman has always been intrigued—and immensely entertained—by the notion of recognizing intelligence in "alien" creatures.

Picture the moment in any creature feature when humans discover they are dealing with a monster that thinks and learns, and you'll have a taste of the significance of Wasserman's work in the Department of Psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).

Nearly 20 years ago, when Wasserman announced to the scientific community his discovery that ordinary, garden-variety pigeons can engage in relatively complex thought processes, it was a similar lightning bolt. Wasserman's work with pigeons (which continues to this day) can teach us a lot about how animals—including humans—think and learn.

"Iowa is famous for taking a hard scientific approach to animal behavior."Professor Ed Wasserman, who is continuing the tradition of psychology breakthroughs at the UI.

Now the Dewey B. and Velma Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology, Wasserman studies what he calls "the natural science of mind." Expanding upon the work of such illustrious experimental psychologists as B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, and Kenneth Spence (after whom the UI's Spence Laboratories of Psychology are named), he investigates the confluence of experience, biology, heredity, and evolutionary history that come together in an organism to constitute learning and intelligence. Through his experiments with pigeons, baboons, and other animals, including, yes, humans, he has made some surprising discoveries and raised provocative questions about what it means to be intelligent—and what it means to be human.

Thanks in part to the extra monetary support he receives from his named professorship, Wasserman has traveled all over the world in pursuit of those "aha!" moments. He's also been able to bring astute researchers to the UI from across the globe. Recent postgraduate associates have hailed from Japan, Spain, and Russia, while graduate assistants have come from Chile and China.

Much like the animals they study (Wasserman asserts that pigeons in Tokyo are exactly like pigeons in Iowa City), these researchers have worked together nearly seamlessly because the vernacular and methods of experimental psychology are universal—and those methods have strong roots here at the UI.

"Iowa is famous for taking a hard scientific approach to animal behavior," Wasserman says, noting that Spence, in particular, was known for tightening scientific standards in this discipline. "There has always been notable enthusiasm in the scientific community for animal behavior work" at the UI, he says.

Faculty support such as the Stuit Professorship certainly helps Wasserman and other standout faculty members like him continue to set the standards for excellence in their respective fields. "It means more than just a boost in salary," he says. "It's a reward for doing good work—and it makes more money available to advance my research."

That research has suggested that there may be only a quantitative difference between human and animal intelligence, not a qualitative one. At the risk of knocking humans down an ego peg or two, Wasserman notes that human and animal brains appear to be highly similar—backing up Charles Darwin's proposal that "the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind."

A Leader in Education and Philanthropy
Dewey B. Stuit, 1909-2008

When Dewey B. Stuit died on January 9, 2008, at his retirement home in Iowa City, his body was donated to the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine. This final gift was an appropriate end to the life of a man who gave so much, for so many years, to the University of Iowa.

Stuit first came to the UI in 1938. His career here totaled 39 years of service, including nearly 30 years as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts (now the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences). He was known for balancing strong leadership with administrative flexibility, and he led the UI's largest college through three decades of overwhelming growth and change.

Stuit and his wife, Velma (1911-1997), also were generous philanthropists. Together they endowed two professorships in the psychology department, including the Dewey B. Stuit Professorship in Experimental Psychology held by Ed Wasserman (pictured with Stuit at right). Over the years, the Stuits also made numerous and significant gifts through the University of Iowa Foundation to support honor students, undergraduate research in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, female students pursuing degrees in science, the fine arts, and many other initiatives and areas on campus.

Wasserman's findings may make some people uncomfortable, but his discoveries are important—and promising—because his methods for studying animal cognition are immediately transferable to humans. An experiment to test pigeons' ability to discern facial expressions among humans (yes, they can do that!) can be used to assess the same skills in children.

Wasserman is collaborating with a colleague in the speech pathology and audiology department (also part of CLAS) to apply his pigeon-testing methods in studying children with language impairments. A child's speech difficulty may sometimes be a symptom or manifestation of a more general cognitive issue, such as a problem with relational learning.

Remember those "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others" shorts from Sesame Street, where children are asked to pick out the different item among a collection of similar things? That's an example of relational learning. Wasserman has done a lot of this "same or different" testing with animals, and the same methods (even the same equipment: computer touchscreens displaying images for the test subject to choose from) can be used to test a child's non-verbal cognition, and therefore help indicate what sort of therapy will get the best results for that child.

As Wasserman and his colleagues continue to learn more about how the brains of animals work, the scientists will continue to shed light on the brains of humans as well. As it turns out, then, Wasserman's work isn't for the birds. It's for us.