Having two hearts, a long knitted scarf, and a blue police box are not needed to understand the concepts of space and time. In fact, it turns out that fur isn’t even necessary, as researchers claim to have shown that even the humble pigeon can wrap its brain around such notions.
Our feathered friends may be famously dim-witted, but a new study has shown that this reputation is doing a disservice to the city slickers. The birds can apparently figure out the abstract concepts of both time and space, and what’s more, it might teach us just how little we know about the brain power required to do so.
“Indeed, the cognitive prowess of birds is now deemed to be ever closer to that of both human and nonhuman primates,” explained Edward Wasserman, who has studied intelligence not only in pigeons, but a whole host of other animals, and coauthored this study published in Current Biology. “Those avian nervous systems are capable of far greater achievements than the pejorative term 'bird brain' would suggest.”
The researchers tested the avian critters in a slightly unconventional way, using what is known as the “common magnitude” test. For this, the pigeons were shown a computer screen with either a long or a short line on it, for either a long or short period of time. The birds had to correctly identify either the length of the line or duration of time by pecking on the right symbol.
The tests were then expanded to include a variety of line lengths and time durations, which apparently shows how they can process the concept of both time and space. “The task now forces pigeons to process time and space simultaneously because they cannot know on which dimension they're going to be tested,” said Wasserman.
Tests in humans and other mammals have seemed to suggest that the ability to process both space and time happens in the parietal cortex of the brain, which itself is found within the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the outermost layer of the brain and is where certain “higher” processes, like speech, occur. Yet pigeons don’t have a cerebral cortex, which makes the discovery that they too can understand these abstract concepts all the more curious.
This means that despite showing similar ways of processing space and time to humans and non-human primates during these tests, the pigeons must be using a different region of the brain to achieve it. Where exactly that is, remains to be found.