Do Animals Tell Stories?

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A litany of stories is told within the human mind each day. In a form of "mental time travel," we consciously reconstruct past events to help instruct our present actions.

For example, you might recall that Aunt Margie's garlic potatoes, served at your family's last holiday party, were a little heavy on the cream and butter. After devouring three helpings, you became bloated and gassy. Thus, if the dish is served again this year, you'll scarf only one helping, instead. (Okay, maybe two.)

The process of recalling past situations in narrative detail is called episodic memory. You remember when the event happened, where it happened, what was involved and other context-specific information. These facts come together to form an internal story of sorts.

As far as we know, most other animals do not have episodic memory. Endel Tulving, the influential

cognitive psychologist who was the first to differentiate episodic memory from other types, says that animals can adjust, adapt, and learn, but

they cannot "travel back into the past in their own minds."

But there are scientists who are working to build a convincing case to the contrary. In a 2006 review, German researchers at Heinrich-Heine-University agglomerated 30 studies examining episodic-like memory in numerous species. According to animal behaviorist, Dr. Patricia McConnell:

In one study cited in the paper (Menzel 1999), a language-trained

chimpanzee observed a caretaker hiding a food beyond the fence of the

enclosure, out of reach of the chimp. Sixteen hours later, the chimp

recruited a different caretaker, who did not know where the food had

been hidden, indicated the kind of food hidden and directed the

caretaker to the food itself.

In this fascinating instance, the chimp was not only able to recall what it had witnessed, but was able to impart that information -- the when, where and what -- to a human.

More compelling evidence for animal episodic memory originated from a study on scrub jays (medium-sized social birds similar to bluejays). These birds are commonly known to store food in various locations within their territories, over elongated spans of time. Such behavior obviously requires excellent memory.

shutterstock_69249277.jpgIn a laboratory setting, researchers presented scrub jays with two different types of food: one perishable, one non-perishable. They found that the birds vastly preferred to eat the perishable variety.

Researchers then gave the birds the same two food choices within larger enclosures. The jays took the food and cached them in various locations. Once done hiding the food, the birds were removed from the enclosure and kept out for various durations of time. When released back into the enclosure, the researchers found that the majority of birds would choose to recover and eat the preferred perishable food if released back into the enclosure in less than 28 hours. But the jays would recover and eat the less-preferred, non-perishable food if they were kept out of the enclosure for more than 28 hours.

This shows that scrub jays can recall where food is hidden, what types of food are hidden and when the foods were originally hidden. Their actions satisfied the three staples of episodic memory.

However, since researchers can't actually delve into the psyche of a scrub jay or any other type of animal, the just-mentioned evidence really only scratches the surface. We can't -- at this time -- know for sure whether or not animals can tell stories within their minds, but perhaps one day, we will.

(Image: Bluejay via Shutterstock)

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