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It Turns Out That Pigeons Can Multi-Task Surprisingly Better Than Us

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Dami Olonisakin

Editorial Assistant

clockSep 27 2017, 21:49 UTC

ENRIQUE ALAEZ PEREZ/Shutterstock

We’re not the only ones who can switch back and forth between two tasks rapidly when completing a job. Nope, pigeons are just as quick, (I know, right?). It gets even more interesting, as new research in Current Biology says they can actually complete tasks given to them 250 milliseconds faster than humans.

Study authors Dr Sara Letzner and Professor Onur Güntürkün from Ruhr-Universität Bochum conducted the study by giving the exact same behavioral test to 12 birds and 15 humans.

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Both groups were given a mission to complete two different tasks. During the first part of the study the volunteers had to stop a current task and change to another task as quickly as possible. The second exercise, however, had a 300-millisecond setback between the first and second task.

During the first exercise, humans and pigeons performed equally as well. During the second case, the pigeons were 250 milliseconds faster than their human counterparts. 

The scientists had a theory for this result: The pigeons' small brains are densely packed with nerve cells, which means the signals likely travel faster between neurons.

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"Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience have been wondering for a long time how it was possible that some birds, such as crows or parrots, are smart enough to rival chimpanzees in terms of cognitive abilities, despite their small brains and their lack of a cortex," says Letzner in a statement

"The results of the current study provide a partial answer to this mystery: It is precisely because of their small brain that is densely packed with nerve cells that birds are able to reduce the processing time in tasks that require rapid interaction between different groups of neurons.”

Letzner added: "For a long time, scientists used to believe the mammalian cerebral cortex to be the anatomical cause of cognitive ability; it is made up of six cortical layers." However, when we’re talking about birds, this type of structure doesn’t exist at all. 

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However, pigeons do have six times as many nerve cells per cubic millimeter of brain than humans. This means the distance between two neurons in pigeon brains is 50 percent shorter than in humans.


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