Animals and Time

by F.

In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert confidently declares that only human beings can think about the future. As one who has an irrational love of non-human animals, my reaction to statements like this is typically skepticism. But Gilbert is not alone in his view of animal minds and time: this is the received wisdom. Now it turns out it may be wrong.

The most recent Nature has story about some research showing that scrub-jays (a tiny bird with a mondo brain) can plan for the future:

There is much debate as to whether animals can travel mentally in time, to plan for the future in anticipation of an expected need. It is difficult to prove that an animal’s actions are a result of such time-shifting but work on a bird, the western scrub-jay, seems to have done exactly that.

The two protocols, the ‘planning for breakfast’ and ‘breakfast choice’ experiments, show that jays can provide for a future need, both by preferentially caching food in a place in which they have learned that they will be hungry the next morning, and by differentially storing a particular food in a place where it will not be available next day.

The results suggest that the birds spontaneously plan for tomorrow without reference to their current motivational state.

Go scrub-jays! I knew you could do it. More. And if you don’t think rats can do math, read The Number Sense, one of the best pop math books you’ll find.

P.S., The Number Sense is far better than Lakoff’s book on the same subject (viz., the psychology of mathematical cognition), which is actually kind of stupid.