Wildlife Wis­dom of the Flock

Pi­geons are much smarter than we think

Newsweek International - - NEWSWEEK - BY JOSEPH FRANKEL @joseph­frankel

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.

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