Brendan McGonigle

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Brendan O. McGonigle (18 May 1939 – 29 November 2007) was a reader in psychology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He received a BA (in 1961) and a PhD (in 1964) from Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 1964 he did his postdoc at Durham University, moving in 1965 to lecture in experimental psychology at Oxford University. Following a stint as an assistant professor and NIH Research Associate at the Animal Behaviour Lab, Pennsylvania State University, he moved to the University of Edinburgh in 1969.[1] Brendan died on 29 November 2007.

Brendan's main interest was in characterising the growth and dynamics of intelligent systems. Research on this involved comparative psychology, developmental psychology, robotics, and cognitive modelling, all integrated within one programme. Research with squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus), capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella), and young children studied pre-linguistic competencies. Monkeys provided inspiration for robotic models of complex primate intelligence. A central focus was the search for cognitive tasks which could be used in animals and humans.

Brendan's work was borne from the animal learning culture of the 1960s,[2][3] but he pioneered the study of more complex relational rule learning in animals by moving away from the simple two-choice discrimination paradigm characteristic of associationistic approaches to animal minds.[4] A well known study with Margaret Chalmers published in Nature[5] adapted a test of transitive reasoning for monkeys and showed that monkeys were capable of performing on these tasks at comparable levels of success to young children. The authors argued that both species were evincing rational choice based on linear ordering of information and later confirmed this using reaction time measures.[6]

In his research, Brendan was concerned to allow monkeys long-term learning opportunities comparable to that available for children, and so his subsequent work with Cebus apella was a long and staged programme in which the monkeys were trained to seriate by size and classify by shape and colour up to 12 objects on a touch screen – a level of ordering competence that only emerges in human development at around 6/7 years of age and had never before been demonstrated in a non-human species.

The sequences achieved by Cebus apella have significance for the evolution of human language. Although the monkeys were trained on a core spine such as square, circle, triangle, they transferred to extended versions such as "touch all the stars, then all the triangles, then all the hexagons" with an ease that could not be predicted by simple association learning. They also nested size relations within these classes, choosing for example large star, middle sized star, small star, large hexagon, middle sized hexagon, etc. At the end of their training the monkeys were able to simultaneously maintain 4 different sequences that randomly alternated on different trials: 9 stars ordered by size, 9 hexagons ordered by size and 9 triangles ordered by size, as well as a 9 item set composed of all three shapes – also ordered by size.[7] This is the first example of the acquisition of a complex hierarchical structure by a non-human primate and has been cited by Hauser and McDermott (2003)[8] as a possible exception to the claim that only humans have "infinite productivity".


  1. ^ See the webpage for the Laboratory for Cognitive NeuroScience[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ McFarland and McGonigle, 1967, Nature 215, 786 – 787
  3. ^ McGonigle et al., 1967, Nature 214, 531 – 532
  4. ^ McGonigle and Jones, 1975, Perception, 4, 419-429, 1977, Perception, 6, 213-217, 1978, Perception, 7, 635-659
  5. ^ McGonigle, B. O.; Chalmers, M. (1977). "Are monkeys logical?". Nature. 267 (5613): 694–696. PMID 406574. doi:10.1038/267694a0. 
  6. ^ McGonigle, B. O.; Chalmers, M. (1992). "Monkeys are rational!". Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 45B: 189–228. doi:10.1080/14640749208401017. 
  7. ^ McGonigle, B. O.; Chalmers, M.; Dickinson, A. (2003). "Concurrent disjoint and reciprocal classification by Cebus apella in serial ordering tasks: evidence for hierarchical organization". Animal Cognition. 6 (3): 185–197. PMID 12761655. doi:10.1007/s10071-003-0174-y. 
  8. ^ Hauser, M. D.; McDermott, J. (2003). "The evolution of the music faculty: A comparative perspective". Nature Neuroscience. 6 (7): 663–665. PMID 12830156. doi:10.1038/nn1080. 


  • McGonigle, Brendan; Chalmers, Margaret. Putting Descartes before the horse (again!). Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Vol 31(2) Apr 2008, 142-143.
  • Warren, J. M; McGonigle, Brendan. Effects of differential and nondifferential reinforcement on generalization test performance by cats. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Vol 69(4, Pt.1) Dec 1969, 709-712.
  • McGonigle, Brendan; Chalmers, Margaret. Ordering and executive functioning as a window on the evolution and development of cognitive systems. International Journal of Comparative Psychology. Vol 19(2) 2006, 241-267.
  • McGonigle, Brendan; Chalmers, Margaret; Dickinson, Anthony. Concurrent disjoint and reciprocal classification by Cebus apella in seriation tasks: Evidence for hierarchical organization. Animal Cognition. Vol 6(3) Sep 2003, 185-197.
  • De Lillo, Carlo; McGonigle, Brendan O. The logic of searches in young children (Homo sapiens) and tufted Capuchin-monkeys (Cebus apella). International Journal of Comparative Psychology. Vol 10(1) 1997, 1-24.
  • Terrace, H. S; McGonigle, Brendan. Memory and representation of serial order by children, monkeys, and pigeons. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol 3(6) Dec 1994, 180-189.
  • Harris, M. R; McGonigle, B. O. A model of transitive choice. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology B: Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Vol 47B(3) Aug 1994, 319-348.
  • McGonigle, Brendan; Chalmers, Margaret. Monkeys are rational! The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology B: Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Vol 45B(3) Oct 1992, 189-228.
  • McGonigle, Brendan O. Non-verbal thinking by animals? Nature. Vol 325(7000) Jan 1987, 110-112.