Dr Amanda Seed

ams18_ I am interested in the evolution of flexible behaviour and abstract thought.  In particular I study the extent to which non-human primates and human children solve problems using object concepts and causal reasoning.  I am also interested in executive functions and episodic cognition.  We have been employing an individual differences approach to exploring the relationship between some of these different cognitive skills and how they combine to affect performance on problem-solving tasks.  The motivation for this research is to shed light on the evolutionary changes in representational, mnemonic and executive processes that marked the origins of uniquely human thinking.  I am also interested in convergent evolution of intelligence in other large-brained animals such as corvids and parrots, and comparing species to uncover common principles for the evolution of intelligence.

Current Research Projects

Physical reasoning

Kuno 04-1Can primates use physical principles such as solidity or connectedness to solve problems, or are they limited to perceptual features such as spatial relationships between objects?  How does physical reasoning develop in human ontogeny? In collaboration with Josep Call I have been testing great apes and pre-schoolers on various problem solving tasks.

Correlation is not causation: do primates know the difference? 

IMG_1691Children have been described as little scientists because of their ability to infer patterns of causation from observed events, and plan interventions to investigate and test causal relationships.  Do primates infer an underlying causal structure when they observe events or are they limited to learning patterns of association without encoding causal directionality? Can they use action to explore the physical properties of objects and explain the cause of events? How do their abilities compare with those of children? I am collaborating with Daphna Buchsbaum, Emma Tecwyn and Alison Gopnik to try and find out.

Executive functions

image“Executive functions” (EFs) are “a set of general-purpose control processes that regulate thoughts and behaviours”. Cross-sectional studies of adults show that although there is an overall correlation in the performance of individuals across several different ‘executive’ tasks, there is not complete overlap, and 3 factors can be dissociated: inhibitory control, working memory, and attentional flexibility. Could human evolution have involved changes in these control mechanisms? Together with Carolina Mayer, Christoph Voelter and Josep Call we are using individual differences to explore how these process are related to one another over primate evolution and human development.

Episodic cognition

image1Are young children and non-human animals cognitively stuck in the present, unable to remember past events or plan for future ones? At what point in development do we gain the ability to mentally travel in time? In collaboration with Jamie Ainge and our two shared PhD students, Emmie and Katie, we are trying to understand the nature of episodic cognition in children and non-human primates.


Parrot and corvid cognition

DSC_01523The evolution of cognition in distantly related groups provides a fascinating perspective on the pressures that cause minds to adapt.  Within the bird family, which is separated from us by 300 million years of independent evolution, two groups stand out as having particularly large brains and high numbers of reports of flexible behaviour: the parrots and the crows.  In collaboration with researchers from the University of York (Dr. Katie Slocombe and Megan Lambert), and also Vienna and Auckland, we are studying how species such as Kea, Vasa parrots, ravens and New Caledonian crows solve problems.