Psychological research is conducted with non-human animals both because the behaviour they show is of interest in its own right and also because the study of a variety of species can help to reveal psychological principles that are of general relevance. Both these perspectives are reflected in the work of the Comparative Psychology and Behavioural Neuroscience research group.
The department's commitment to research in comparative psychology and behavioural neuroscience was established early on when a small animal laboratory was set up immediately after the department was founded in 1975. Over the years this has grown and we now have a purpose-built facility, fully refurbished in 2006. There are five climate-controlled animal-holding rooms (for birds, small mammals, and reptiles), a suite of experimental rooms equipped with Skinner boxes and other behavioural testing apparatus, facilities for surgery and histology, and a workshop. The work of the laboratory is supported by two full-time technicians.
Initially research in the laboratory was concerned principally with the behavioural and physiological analysis of basic mechanisms of learning and motivation in rodents, using standard laboratory techniques of classical and instrumental conditioning. This work continues, but the focus on interest has now widened to include comparative cognition more generally with research projects on complex perception and information processing in a range of laboratory species, in wild-living primates and a range of zoo-housed species.
Our laboratory work is chiefly concerned to investigate basic mechanisms of learning and motivation by means of experimental studies conducted with the laboratory rat as the subject. One line of work being conducted at York is particularly concerned with the mechanisms by which organisms become adapted to environmental circumstances as a result of learning; the intention is to develop a formal theory of associative learning (in which animals learn the relationship between environmental events), and of perceptual learning (whereby they learn to discriminate one event from another). Associative learning processes play a part in the development of drug addiction and an understanding of the brain mechanisms responsible is a matter of prime practical importance. Our work in this area concentrates on the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine and of the brain structure known as the amygdala. This structure is important for emotional learning generally, and we are also studying the role it plays in allowing animals to learn to suppress behaviour that leads to aversive consequences. This work complements that being done by our cognitive neuroscience group who are using imaging techniques to study parallel phenomena in special human populations (eg sufferers from ADHD).
Our work in comparative cognition assesses the extent to which standard associative accounts of learning can be applied to more complex instances of animal behaviour, and the highlights cases in which other cognitive processes must be invoked to explain the behaviour observed. Laboratory work has included studies of visual motion detection in birds and of spatial learning in reptiles; fieldwork has concentrated on vocal communication in chimpanzees, although the wild birdlife on the campus lake has not been neglected. The local zoo has afforded the opportunity to study a range of species including primates, wallabies, and lions.