Humans have long enjoyed crowing about their intellectual superiority in the animal kingdom. But just as some studies—of tool-wielding birds and language-discerning rodents—have begun to chip away at our cognitive place in the sun, others have set their sights on two human groups whose intelligence might have been underestimated—the very young and the very old.

Babies first: "Generations of psychologists and philosophers have believed that babies and young children were basically defective adults—irrational, egocentric and unable to think logically," Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009), wrote in a New York Times editorial last week. But her research—and that of others—has gone on to show that rather than being one crayon short of a full box, "In some ways, they are smarter than adults," she says. 

Gopnik's research at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown young children (of the five-and-under set) to be fully capable of reasoning and assessing probability. But babies' tendency to be interested in just about everything has led many adults to assume their lack of focus is indicative of unintelligence, Gopnik noted. "Babies explore; adults audit," she says. 

On the other end of the spectrum, even older adults without an impairing disease such as Alzheimer's are often assumed to have experienced some cognitive slippage. Whereas that may be true in some respects, new research is proving that seniors are perfectly competent in learning new concepts—and remembering them.

A study, published online this month in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, tested the reasoning, perceptual-motor speed and visual attention of 47 adults aged 70 to 90 and then retested them eight months later. Indeed, they did just fine and even remembered much of what they had learned. "This study suggests that seniors' minds are still sharp," Lixia Yang, of Ryerson University in Canada and a co-author of the study, said in a prepared statement.

Perhaps the saying that old age is the second childhood should really be seen as a mutual compliment.

Image courtesy of Qole Pejorian via Flickr