Outfoxed by a Mongoose in the cognitive maze

It is not every day that one would mistake a mongoose for a fox. Well, it is not every day that one would spot a mongoose. So, when this snake hunter turned up by the side of the safari track with its back towards me early one morning at B R Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, my cognitive impulse said “Fox”! It pulled down my scores in the Green Ogre Mammal Identification Refresher Test. But it was just a moment before another cognitive impulse screamed: ‘Mongoose’, followed by ‘Ruddy’ followed by ‘No, Stripe-necked’.

Yes, it was. I whistled for our safari driver to stop.

The Stripe-necked Mongoose (Herpestes vitticollis) after it turned around
The Stripe-necked Mongoose (Herpestes vitticollis) after it turned around

A co-passenger whispered, “What is it?” The naturalist replied, “Stripe-necked Mongoose.” I thanked my tongue for not having screamed “fox” at the first sight of the animal. But I wondered why. Would I mistake a stork for a peafowl, an otter for a crocodile? I knew it was something to do with the resemblance in terms of the color of the fur and the size, but that was not sufficient, for if that were the case my cognitive impulse should scream “Fox” every time I saw a red turkish towel on a short stool. It was all forgotten as I had managed to grab a reasonable picture of the mongoose. I later came across a video on the Semantic Network.

The Semantic Network is like an indexing mechanism for the human brain. It categorizes what we have learnt in an easily retrievable network structure. And in the animal world where split second decisions need to be made on Fight/Flight, Food/Poison, Benefit/Bait (I suppose it doesn’t work), an easily retrievable repository of experiences counts.

Semantic Networks are all about recollection through connection and the connections are enhanced over time. Interestingly connections are defined on the basis of experience. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow talks about Availability Bias, a cognitive bias which impacts decision making. The principle of availability bias states that the mind often makes decisions based on what comes easily to your mind as compared to the overall probability. He states there are two parts of the human cognitive system, one that takes split-second decisions (fight/flight) and the other that is more analytical and objective. People from the city passing near a granite quarry on a cloudy day are more likely to judge a thundering noise as a weather phenomenon as opposed to noting it as the sounds of explosions. War veterans have been noted to mistake the sounds of motor vehicles back-firing as ordnance explosions.

Any Birding 101 session is first about characteristics and connections: How does the bird perch, how does it call, how does it fly, what was the habitat? Bird identification exploits the Semantic Network to perfection. So does any animal identification since recognition and identification go hand in hand. The process starting with observing the traits/characteristics, mapping them to known sources, recognizing the connection, and therefore identifying the animal. Short-cutting through the process results in mistaken identity as it happened in case of the Stripe necked Mongoose.

A Semantic Network
A Semantic Network


Of course, a Semantic Network is only as reliable as it has been built to be. This is where beliefs, superstitions and misinformations can wreck havoc. For instance the Aye Aye in Madagascar is on the brink of extinction as there is a local belief that they bring ill luck and hence were hunted ruthlessly. So when Douglas Adams visited Madagascar during his trip across the world to see endangered animal species before they went extinct (detailed in his book Last Chance to See, with photographer Mark Carwardine), his Semantic Network would have connected Aye Ayes as “Awesome Luck > Let’s get a picture of it”, while some of the locals would have had it as “Bad Luck > Let’s kill it” (which they had been doing).

I see a poorly wired Semantic Network as the prime cause of conservation issues we are facing these days. The world is divided among people who see floral and faunal diversity as “Lucrative Business” as opposed to those who see it as “Enriching Experience”.

In the animal kingdom where most decisions are based on survival and hence of the fight or flight kinds, there is a Semantic Network between the stimulus and response. The Semantic Network for beings near Human and Animal conflict zones will be a lot different from the ones in more tranquil regions. Humans have an advantage of the more rational and analytical part of the brain which Daniel Kahneman calls System 2. System 2 enables informed decisions based on inputs from multiple sources, this works for humans as given the nature of human society there are fewer fight or flight decisions to be made, while many decisions can be thought through and pondered on. On the other hand System 1 as per Daniel Kahneman is  heuristics-based.

Heuristics are cognitive short-cuts based on experiences, akin to rules of thumb. While birding we use it as a first level of recognition to identify the bird family. The word jizz (birders find nothing pornographic about it) is used to denote the intuitive, gut-feel appearance of the bird. Being a short-cut, it skips the multiple nodes of the Semantic Network to more or less get us the same result. It takes about a fraction of a second to say “Nuthatch”, “Woodpecker” or “Thrush at 11 o’ clock” and the judgement is based on just a fleeting glance. However, jizz-birding relies heavily on pattern recognition. Experience is a game-changer; the vaster our experiential repository the more accurate the heuristics are likely to be.

Do we need to rely on heuristics in situations that do not necessitate a time-critical decision? Heuristics cannot be completely eliminated, it is the tendency ingrained in us humans from the time our ancestors dwelled in caves. It gives a friendly beep or hostile alarm even before a word is spoken. Heuristics are required to get the identification ball rolling; it reduces the problem space. There is a headstart based on the bird family and the actual identification happens based on the physical features where the rational/analytical system kicks in. The rational/analytical system uses more resources for processing the information. For instance, we start calling out features such as supercilium, wing barrings, moustachial stripe, black rump, etc., and as we are doing this there is a match-the-following exercise going in the mind – a concerted process of identify/eliminate.

And all this while I thought birding was a means to relax the mind!


Semantic networks with a crucial piece of information for an unambiguous result
Semantic networks with a crucial piece of information for an unambiguous result

So, coming back to the the Stripe-necked Mongoose, while I relied on heuristics and screamed “Fox” my semantic network came to my rescue and associated the Stripe-necked Mongoose with mammal, red, and 1.5 to 2 feet. Given the lessons in cognition I had after the encounter, I inferred that a mind that thinks makes a better companion while viewing nature from the secure environs of a safari jeep as compared to a mind that leaps to conclusions. On further introspection I gather in the absence of the leaping mind, the thinking mind will have a longer cognitive maze to negotiate.


We don’t need no thought control


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