The Jacobs Lab for Cognitive Biology




Our research group is interested in how cognition is adapted to a species’s environment – the study of cognitive biology, as our group defines it. 

The evolving brain is a journalist that asks – who, where, how and why. In our case: 

WHO: Led by Lucia Jacobs, we are a research group of biologists and comparative psychologists.

WHERE: We are in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. We are currently located in Tolman (a.k.a. cognitive map) Hall, though Psychology is moving off campus to a newly constructed building in 2018. We are also members of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. 

HOW: We study foraging and route-finding decisions in diverse species, primarily in wild fox squirrels. We have recently been funded by the NSF to conduct a comparative study of olfactory navigational decisions in search dogs, humans and diverse invertebrate species. We also develop computational models of squirrel decision making processes, funded by a NSF DDIG grant to graduate student Mikel Delgado and in collaboration with former postdoc Michal Arbilly, now at Emory. Funded by the Peder Sather Center, we also work with Jarl Giske and his theoretical biology research group at the University of Bergen, Norway. Graduate student Judy Jinn, funded by a NSF GROW fellowship and in collaboration with Bob Full’s Polypedal Lab, is expanding this collaboration with computational models of cognitive biomechanics: how an animal’s integrated knowledge of its environment – the spatial layout and the locomotory obstacles, both of which must be learned via exploration and motor learning  – drives its route-finding decisions.

WHAT:  We study champion species – the best at what they do –  whose specializations of universal cognitive traits can identify the first principles of a cognitive process. Currently, this is the complex series of decisions faced by a food-storing animal like a squirrel: which food type to choose, to eat or to cache, how then to distribute and how to retrieve caches, whether one’s own or another’s. We also study cognitive universals, using comparative studies to understand processes found in all species, such as spatial navigation, self-control and emotion and cognitive biomechanics. In the past we have studied adaptive patterns in spatial cognition and its neural basis in: wild voles, wild kangaroo rats, flying squirrels, laboratory mice, pet dogs and humans (both children and adults, in virtual environments). We also develop theoretical syntheses of cognitive and brain evolution.

WHY: Cognition is a highly complex biological trait, that emerges from the interaction of multiple historical processes, both the evolutionary history of the species and the experiential history of the individual. Only by understanding the environment in which these historical processes played out, on different time scales, can we hope to understand the function and mechanisms of brain and cognitive processes.