suspect,” Wasserman says. “You would never guess that they can do the things they do. But, of course, from just watching people on a daily basis, you wouldn’t know that we can do Boolean algebra or write stage plays either.” Wasserman, who began his 50th year in the classroom and the laboratory at Iowa this fall, researches intelligence in pigeons, as well as baboons, dogs, parrots, and other animals. In recent years, Wasserman’s team has published findings as varied as proving that pigeons can understand abstract ideas like space and time, to demonstrating the birds’ ability to identify signs of breast cancer on X-rays. His most recent study has shown that these pigeon pathologists can achieve human-level accuracy in diagnosing heart disease from ultrasound images—though the birds require much more training than their human counterparts. Through animal research, Wasserman works to reveal the processes behind human learning, memory, and cognition. It also gives him unique insight into some of psychology’s biggest mysteries, including one at the heart of his new book, As If By Design: How Creative Behaviors Really Evolve (2021, Cambridge University Press). In it, Wasserman tackles a profound question: Where does innovative thinking come from? Are some people creative geniuses who have the unique ability to conjure new ideas? Or are there simpler, more scientifically observable mechanisms at play?

stroke. Field of Dreams. These are just a few of the Iowa-hatched ideas that have changed the world during the University of Iowa’s 175-year history. A UI scientist studies how creative breakthroughs like these evolve—and tells us why the eureka moment is a myth. Inside the University of Iowa’s gleaming new Psychological and Brain Sciences Building, experimental psychologist Ed Wasserman and his laboratory team put their unique research subjects through their paces. Test takers stand inside a small cubicle known as a Skinner box, where they face a glowing screen displaying a series of ultrasound videos. Some videos show an isolated ventricle of a human heart expanding and contracting normally. Others show a constricted ventricle struggling to pump blood. The research subjects tap a blue or yellow button on the touchscreen to identify what they’re seeing—a healthy or constricted ventricle. When they answer correctly, a device on the back wall drops their reward into the cubicle. The beady-eyed test takers—part of Wasserman’s flock of research pigeons—nosh on the fresh pile of birdseed before returning their attention to the screen. The study is the latest in Wasserman’s long career investigating the cognitive processes behind animal behavior. Currently, his laboratory is studying whether pigeons can be trained to diagnose heart disease in much the same way that artificial intelligence can be fed data to learn to detect disease. Humans aren’t the only clever organisms under the sun, says Wasserman. Psychological researchers have found that pigeons and other animals can exhibit behaviors that a casual observer might declare to be insightful or even creative. “There’s a lot moregoing on in that little noggin than you might otherwise

As it turns out, we may not be that much different than Wasserman’s feathered research partners.

Pigeon-Guided Missiles and the Myth of Genius

Not only does Wasserman study innovation, but he’s also an innovator in his own right. One of the world’s most respected learning scientists who’s admired by colleagues for his methodological creativity, Wasserman has made headlines since the 1980s, when The New York Times first noted he had trained eight pigeons to recognize human emotional expressions, including on the faces of people they had never seen before.


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