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Can Animals Understand Time? April 4, 2007

Posted by tkcollier in Enviroment, Science & Technology.
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Time in the Animal Mind – New York Times
Humans are born time travelers. We may not be able to send our bodies into the past or the future, at least not yet, but we can send our minds. We can relive events that happened long ago or envision ourselves in the future.

New studies suggest that the two directions of temporal travel are intimately entwined in the human brain. A number of psychologists argue that re-experiencing the past evolved in our ancestors as a way to plan for the future and that the rise of mental time travel was crucial to our species’ success. But some experts on animal behavior do not think we are unique in this respect. They point to several recent experiments suggesting that animals can visit the past and future as well.

Dr. Clayton recently tested her scrub jays for foresight. She and her colleagues put the birds in three adjoining compartments for six days. Each morning the birds were shut for two hours in one of two rooms. In one room they got nothing to eat. In the other room, they got powdered pine nuts (the scrub jays can eat the powder, but they cannot cache it). For the rest of the day, each bird could move around all three rooms and enjoy more powdered nuts.

On the seventh day, the scientists switched the powdered pine nuts with real ones. If the birds were so inclined, they could cache the pine nuts in ice cube trays the scientists put in the two morning rooms. “If I’m a bird, what I could do is take some of the provisions and hide it in there so that if I do wake up there in the morning, I can get my own breakfast,” Dr. Clayton said.

Dr. Clayton found that the birds put over three times more pine nuts in the no-breakfast room than in the breakfast room. She argues that the results mean that birds can take action for their future needs, knowing what they’ll need and where they’ll need it.

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