Wildlife Wisdom of the Flock
Pigeons are much smarter than we think
odd, but answering it revealed a surprise about the birds who share our streets and dropped bagels: They are not only capable of multitasking but are sometimes better at it than we texting-and-walking humans. Birds lack a neocortex, layers of tissue in the brain thought to play a role in advanced functions, explains Christian Beste, who studies psychology at Ruhr-university Bochum, in Germany. Researchers had long believed animals without a neocortex couldn’t handle higher-order cognitive processes, such as problem-solving. But studies began contradicting that notion. Ravens, for example, rival apes in their ability to barter and use tools.
Beste and his colleagues wanted to know just how sophisticated bird brains are, so they gave humans and pigeons a range of similar exercises. In some, the subjects had to alternate between tasks, like pressing different keys on a keyboard in response to a flashing light. In others, participants had to suddenly stop a task and redirect their attention. The pigeons were just as adept as the humans at alternating between tasks, and when the exercise involved refocusing on an entirely new task, the pigeons did so more quickly. They were better at integrating additional chores into a given sequence.
Why the difference? Beste and his colleagues think the way the brains of pigeons are organized explains the ease with which they stopped and shifted focus. Specifically, the distance between neurons in pigeon brains is much shorter than that in humans, which may explain their faster reaction time.
That added speed may be an advantage for pigeons, says Beste. If a pigeon is pecking away at a piece of corn and spots a predator, shifting quickly from eating to flying away could save its life.
The results also hold a message of caution for human readers. On a cognitive level, Beste says, no such thing as multitasking exists. Although we may think we are doing two things at once (walking and scrolling, texting and driving, working and tweeting), we are actually toggling between two tasks very quickly.
Even pigeons can’t really multitask, says Beste. So by no means should they attempt to text and fly.