Pigeons Grasp the Abstract Concepts of Space and Time

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New research adds to the growing recognition that animals beyond humans and primates show abstract intelligence.

Judging space and time is something that comes relatively easy to most of us humans. Of course, some do it better than others, but the gist of it is that thanks to our brain's parietal cortex, we don't need a watch and a ruler to get a sense of these abstract concepts.

Given that we've long considered members of the avian world to be "birdbrained," so to speak – and the fact that pigeons don't even have a parietal cortex, it's mostly been assumed that the beleaguered birds don't have much going on upstairs. But now new research from the University of Iowa concludes that pigeons are have a lot more cognitive capability than we thought. From the University:

Pigeons can discriminate the abstract concepts of space and time--and seem to use a different region of the brain than humans and primates to do so. In experiments, pigeons were shown on a computer screen a static horizontal line and had to judge its length or the amount of time it was visible to them. Pigeons judged longer lines to also have longer duration and judged lines longer in duration to also be longer in length.

Edward Wasserman, Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UI, explains the findings help bolster the growing recognition amongst scientists that animals like birds, reptiles, and fish are capable of high-level, abstract decision-making.

"Indeed, the cognitive prowess of birds is now deemed to be ever closer to that of both human and nonhuman primates," says Wasserman, who has studied intelligence in a variety of animals for over 40 years. "Those avian nervous systems are capable of far greater achievements than the pejorative term 'bird brain' would suggest."

The researchers put the pigeons through a number of tests designed to measure how the birds processed time and space and found that line length affected the pigeons' discrimination of line duration, and vice versa. "This interplay of space and time paralleled research done with humans and monkeys and revealed the common neural coding of these two physical dimensions. Researchers previously believed that the parietal cortex was the locus of this interplay," notes the University. But since pigeons don't have much of a parietal cortex, yet can still process space and time in ways similar to humans and other primates, they've figured out other ways to do it.

"The cortex is not unique to judging space and time," says Benjamin De Corte, first author on the paper. "The pigeons have other brain systems that allow them to perceive these dimensions." Which just goes to show, once again, that an organism does not have to perfectly mimic the human system to arrive at its own kind of intelligence.

The paper, "Non-cortical magnitude coding of space and time by pigeons," was published online in the journal Current Biology.