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Philip Bespalov
Philip Bespalov

The Detour !!TOP!!

In this paper, we review one of the oldest paradigms used in animal cognition: the detour paradigm. The paradigm presents the subject with a situation where a direct route to the goal is blocked and a detour must be made to reach it. Often being an ecologically valid and a versatile tool, the detour paradigm has been used to study diverse cognitive skills like insight, social learning, inhibitory control and route planning. Due to the relative ease of administrating detour tasks, the paradigm has lately been used in large-scale comparative studies in order to investigate the evolution of inhibitory control. Here we review the detour paradigm and some of its cognitive requirements, we identify various ecological and contextual factors that might affect detour performance, we also discuss developmental and neurological underpinnings of detour behaviors, and we suggest some methodological approaches to make species comparisons more robust.

The Detour


One of the oldest paradigms in animal cognition research involves the use of a see-through obstacle that must be detoured in order to reach the visible goal on the opposite side. Studies on such detour behaviors date back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Hobhouse (1901) tested dogs who could see their owner through a window, and to reach him they had to make a detour and use the door of the house. Thorndike (1911) investigated whether chickens and fish will make roundabouts when a wire or glass barrier blocks the shortest path to a goal room. According to both authors, successful detours exemplify actions that are not solely governed by innate mechanisms because otherwise the animals would head straight for the visible goal.

Since then, the detour paradigm has been used in at least 127 studies on at least 96 species, and it has been varied in different ways and used to measure diverse cognitive skills (Table 1, Online Resource 1). The paradigm has also been used in developmental studies on human children, and in neuropsychological studies. In recent years, detour tasks have been employed for large-scale comparative research into the evolution of complex cognitive skills (Kabadayi et al. 2016, 2017a; MacLean et al. 2014). Amidst the ever-growing number of species being tested on various detour tasks, it is time to take stock and look closer at the detour paradigm and the cognitive skills it measures.

Here we review the detour paradigm within in the field of animal cognition. First, we discuss different types of detour tasks in relation to the cognitive skills they address. We examine various factors that may influence detour behaviors, including ecological, evolutionary and task-specific factors. We also review relevant developmental studies, and those investigating the neurological underpinnings of successful detour behavior. Special attention is paid to the contemporary use of detour tasks as a measure of inhibition. We end with recommendations for future studies.

The goal is initially visible behind the barrier, but it becomes invisible for a certain duration while the animal is moving, due to some added visual occlusions along the way (initially visible goal detours).

A display of eight of the most common setups in detour tasks; each setup comes with two symbols: a half-filled circle (a goal), and a filled triangle (a subject), and occupies a separate panel. Within each panel, the upper figure shows the bird-eye view, while the lower figure the first-person view. The setups belong to the following tasks: a the cylinder task requires a reaching detour through one of the side openings of the transparent cylinder. b Inward detour task requires locomotion detour around a V-shaped transparent/fence barrier. c Plexiglas-hole task requires a reaching detour through one of the two holes in a Plexiglas panel placed upright between the subject and the reward. d Swing-door task requires a reaching detour through the door that is furthest from the goal. The doors can only be opened by pushing them forward, and an attempt to open the door that is closer to the goal results in the goal falling backwards and becoming out of reach. e Detour reaching task (object-retrieval task) requires a reaching detour through the side opening of the transparent box. The box has only one opening, which allows changing the open side facing the subject across trials. f Delayed-detour task requires passing by an opaque corridor and in the end selecting between two paths, only one of which leads to the goal room. g Four-compartment box task requires the subject to turn its back to the goal and choose among four doors, only two of which lead to the goal room. h Detour-choice task requires the subject to turn its back to the goal that is placed on top of a tower, and select among two poles, only one of which leads to the tower where the goal is placed

Köhler (1925) described his observations on dogs, chickens and chimpanzees making detours around wire fences. Whereas dogs and chimpanzees were usually successful, chickens had difficulties and often attempted to go directly for the food through the fence. But he also found individual variation within the species, and later studies have shown remarkable detour performances in chickens, even within few days after hatching (Regolin et al. 1994, 1995; Scholes 1965; Scholes and Wheaton 1966).

Similar to goal visibility, the distance to the goal affects detour behaviors: with increasing goal distance, it becomes easier to execute detours (chickens: Regolin et al. 1995; dogs: Köhler 1925; human infants: Diamond and Gilbert 1989; long-tailed macaques: Junghans et al. 2016; toads: Lock and Collett 1979). This suggests a closer goal creates a stronger lure which makes it harder to move away from. The effect of goal distance on detours has also been the subject of various theoretical analyses on detour behavior (Hull 1938; Lewin 1933; Tolman 1932; reviewed in: Rashotte 1987).

Such findings have led to the interpretation of detour tasks as a measure of executive functions, and more precisely of behavioral/motor inhibition: the subject must inhibit the predominant motor response of directly reaching for the reward and instead make a detour (Diamond 1990, 1991; Moll and Kuypers 1977). The fact that most subjects execute efficient detours around opaque barriers while having problems with identical but transparent barriers suggests a knowing/acting mismatch that is common to other inhibition tasks: the subjects know the detour solution; however, they cannot act on the knowledge because the visible reward creates a strong lure for a direct reach, thus bumping into the barrier (Diamond 2013).

Even though initially visible goal detour setups can be used for testing inhibition, they are more suitable for studying working memory and route planning. In such tasks, the animals arguably form some sort of a mental representation of the goal position, which they then keep in mind for a given amount of time when the goal goes out of sight.

For example, octopuses (Octopus vulgaris) have been tested in such design, also known as a delayed-detour test (Schiller 1949a, b; Wells 1964, 1967, 1970). In these experiments, the rewards were visible behind a barrier from the starting position. To reach the reward, the animals had to move forward into an opaque corridor, and choose between two openings at the exit, with only one opening leading to the reward room (Fig. 1f). The octopuses successfully completed around three out of every four trials.

Several initially visible goal detour studies also made use of a four-compartment box; after spotting the goal behind a transparent/semitransparent barrier, the individual had to turn away from the barrier and head toward one of the four opaque compartments, with only two leading to the goal (chickens: Regolin et al. 1995; canaries, herring gulls and quails: Zucca et al. 2005, Fig. 1g).

The behavior of the animal at the choice point in initially visible goal detours might be especially relevant in studying the process of deliberation and planning. At similar choice points where only one route leads to an out-of-sight goal, rats seemingly deliberate over their choices in a process called vicarious trial-and-error, where they pause and look back and forth before they chose a path (Redish 2016). During vicarious trial-and-error, the hippocampal place cells encode future outcomes (Johnson and Redish 2007) where the animal seemingly deliberates over the future alternatives. Similar neurological and behavioral investigations at choice points on initially visible goal detour tasks might shed light on the possible involvement of similar processes such as prospection in solving these detour tasks. Since vicarious trial-and-error occurs mostly when the animal faces the problem for the first time, and disappears after repeated trials (Redish 2016), it is advisable to avoid repeated trials per individual with initially visible goal detour tasks to capture this process of deliberation.

Accordingly, detour tasks were employed to study various learning processes. For example, studies focusing on critical learning periods compared the rate of improvement on detour tasks across different age groups in early development to explore the peak learning period (chickens: Scholes 1965, Scholes and Wheaton 1966). Other studies used detour tasks to explore learning and retention/disruption mechanisms (European green lizards: Fischel 1933; fish: Thorndike 1911; painted turtles: Spigel 1964). Research on social learning investigated whether some animals learn to solve detour problems through observing other individuals executing the detour behavior (Pongrácz et al. 2005, 2008; Wilkinson et al. 2010).

In detours involving visible rewards, the recruited cognitive mechanisms might differ between when solving the problem for the first time and after repeated trials. As mentioned, Köhler believed detour behaviors, especially when performed on the first trial, signaled insightful behavior as the animal must perceive the whole problem ahead of the detour (Köhler 1925). Some detour studies, mostly initially visible goal detours, have followed a strict one trial method, to explore whether animals spontaneously solve a detour problem (Atkinson 2003; Cross and Jackson 2016; Köhler 1925; Regolin et al. 1994, 1995; Regolin and Rose 1999; Sun et al. 2010; Tarsitano and Andrew 1999; Tarsitano and Jackson 1994, 1997; Zucca et al. 2005). 041b061a72


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