The Loom

Animal Time Travelers

i-fde163dc665cb26041820884cfb95496-scrub jay.jpgYou may have read not long ago about birds that can plan for the future. The occasion was a paper that came out in the journal Nature detailing some experiments on scrub jays. I found the paper fascinating, not just for the results themselves, but for the many other studies on mental time travel that are going on these days dealing with other animals–rats, pigeons, monkeys, and us. Instead of simply reporting on one experiment, I took some extra time and took a survey of the past and future of mental time travel. It appears in tomorrow’s New York Times.

For those who crave more, here are some key papers behind the story:

**Scrub jays and foresight

**Rats and episodic memories

**Monkeys and foresight

**Episodic memory in humans

**The evolution of foresight in humans (pdf, in review)

**Brain scans linking past and future (pdf)


  1. #1 Alan Kellogg
    April 2, 2007

    The April Scientific American has an article on “Future Memories”.

  2. #2 Alan Kellogg
    April 2, 2007

    Oops. Make that the March 24th New Scientist. (Were it not for a faulty memory I would have no memory at all. 🙂 )

  3. #4 luca
    April 3, 2007

    Wow! you made it to today’s NY Times headlines!

    Nice one!

    (I am absolutely loving Parasite Rex – have been pestering everybody around me with tidibits from there.)

  4. #5 Andrew Kopec
    April 3, 2007

    It’s an excellent article. I’m starting to read your articles in the New York Times. I think that the memory is the most important thing for species’ survival. I look forward to read more articles from you.

  5. #6 The Neurocritic
    April 3, 2007

    Great article. These posts on the subject might be of interest…

    Mental Time Travel

    i miss you but i haven’t met you yet

    Fables Of The Reconstruction

  6. #7 Dan C
    April 9, 2007

    Carl –

    This article raised an issue that, for me, is a stumbling block in the way that many people (myself included) tend to think about the “distinctions” between human and animal brains. That issue is the frequent merging of philosopical assertions about human-ness and observable, measurable traits. This is exemplified in the idea that “episodic memory require[s] self-awareness” as you cite from Dr. Tulving. Defining something like self-awareness as uniquely human would, by necessity, make it exclusive, but when it’s critically examined and broken into constituent parts such as the capability for episodic memory, we find that it actually places us on a spectrum.

    Nothing new to you, but I always appreciate reminders that we’re a part of, not exempt from, the natural world. Can’t wait to read Soul Made Flesh.


    P.S. Thanks to Parasite Rex I’ve found myself asking my girlfriend during dinner, “Is this a good time to talk about the lifecycle of snail parasites or should I wait until after dessert?”

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