What animals can tell us about ourselves: Sarah Boysen is new Chief Editor of Comparative Psychology in Frontiers in Psychology

Young girl and a dog

In Frontiers in Psychology’s new specialty on Comparative Psychology, new Chief Editor Sarah Boysen invites contributions to this burgeoning field that builds on decades of research that shows that much of what is understood about human behavior is based on observations in other animals.

What is your aim with Comparative Psychology?

“I would like to see greater participation by my colleagues around the world, through contributions of their work for publication in Frontiers, to further shepherd the field to Comparative Cognition (Comparative Psychology, broadly defined per the Comparative Cognition Society), and its wide and sophisticated readership throughout the world,” says Sarah Boysen.

“Studying animal cognition and behavior falls under the heading of Basic Research, and in such endeavors, a scientist never knows what might emerge from their work, as the scientific process unfolds.  Other species have evolved remarkable adaptations and changes as their environments required for survival, and how, when, and what an understanding of those processes might provide us, for some critical functional application, remains to be discovered.”

How can understanding animals help us understand ourselves?

“Comparative psychology has had a significant role historically in the emerging field of Psychology, in general, since that field emerged from Physiology and Philosophy,” says Sarah Boysen. “Many early musings about human behavior were cast in light of similar observations in other animals by the early naturalists and other early students of animal behavior. Indeed, many of the initial laboratory tasks conducted with non-human animals have been adapted for many studies with non-verbal individuals who require few task demands — namely, human infants and children.”

“Comparative psychology has provided a host of specific applications in the real world that typically have gone unnoticed. For example, premature infants are now routinely placed on sheepskin or synthetic sheepskin, with the kinesthetic feedback from its surface contributing significantly to weight gain. This strategy was a direct result of the pioneering work of Harlow with infant rhesus monkeys, with some raised on artificial surrogate mothers, and whose work has contributed many other insights into the significance of the mother-infant bond.”

To what extent are field studies and laboratory studies important in Comparative Cognition?

Sarah Boysen tells us, “. . . as significant limitations in animal laboratory facilities and funding have emerged in the US, investigators have made creative use of companion animals, particularly dogs. Continued emphasis on other domesticated, non-laboratory animals, in addition to dogs, and not limited to cats, horses, pigs, and other farm animals, as well as exotic species housed in zoos or sanctuaries also offer an opportunity to compare the range of cognitive capacities, including similarities and differences, and further expand the comparative perspective.”

“The field of Comparative Cognition continues to expand the range of species that are being studied, and our focus should continue to be the inclusion of as many different animals, particularly as we can accomplish studies in the field, with continued on-going experimental work under controlled, laboratory conditions, to add to our burgeoning literature.

“Field and laboratory studies have cross-fertilized one another over the past two decades, and such exchange needs to continue over the coming years. It would be of great benefit if more naturalistic work could be accomplished through field experiments, where as many variables are controlled as possible, but the overarching question addresses the inherent cognitive and behavioral strategies that the particular species brings to the experiment.”

The Research Topic The Science and Practice of Captive Animal Welfare is now open for submissions.

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