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Structured Sequence Learning: Animal Abilities, Cognitive Operations, and Language Evolution

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Christopher Petkov, Professor Carel ten Cate



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


© 2019 The Authors Topics in Cognitive Science published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of Cognitive Science SocietyHuman language is a salient example of a neurocognitive system that is specialized to process complex dependencies between sensory events distributed in time, yet how this system evolved and specialized remains unclear. Artificial Grammar Learning (AGL) studies have generated a wealth of insights into how human adults and infants process different types of sequencing dependencies of varying complexity. The AGL paradigm has also been adopted to examine the sequence processing abilities of nonhuman animals. We critically evaluate this growing literature in species ranging from mammals (primates and rats) to birds (pigeons, songbirds, and parrots) considering also cross-species comparisons. The findings are contrasted with seminal studies in human infants that motivated the work in nonhuman animals. This synopsis identifies advances in knowledge and where uncertainty remains regarding the various strategies that nonhuman animals can adopt for processing sequencing dependencies. The paucity of evidence in the few species studied to date and the need for follow-up experiments indicate that we do not yet understand the limits of animal sequence processing capacities and thereby the evolutionary pattern. This vibrant, yet still budding, field of research carries substantial promise for advancing knowledge on animal abilities, cognitive substrates, and language evolution.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Petkov CI, ten Cate C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Topics in Cognitive Science

Year: 2019

Volume: 12

Issue: 3

Pages: 828-842

Print publication date: 01/07/2020

Online publication date: 29/07/2019

Acceptance date: 20/06/2019

Date deposited: 11/03/2020

ISSN (print): 1756-8757

ISSN (electronic): 1756-8765

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell


DOI: 10.1111/tops.12444


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Funder referenceFunder name
ERC. Grant Number: 360.70.452
Wellcome Trust. Grant Number: WT092606AIA