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Daily RC Article 111

Exploring Animal Minds: Episodic Memory and Future Planning


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Episodic memory is the ability to recall past events that one has the sense of having personally experienced. Unlike semantic memory, which involves recalling simple facts like “bee-stings hurt,” episodic memory involves putting yourself at the heart of the memory; like remembering the time you swatted at a bee with a rolled-up newspaper and it got angry and stung your hand.

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If an animal can imagine itself interacting with the world in the past via episodic memory it stands to reason that the animal might also be able to imagine itself in the future in a similar scenario, and thus plan its behaviour… The ability to represent oneself and one’s actions in the mind’s eye – both in the past and in the future – is what scientists refer to as mental time travel.

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Evidence from both brain-damaged and healthy humans suggests that two forms of mental time travel, retrospective in the case of episodic memory and prospective in the case of future planning, depend on common neuropsychological processes. Previous studies have shown that, in accord with the Bischof-Kohler hypothesis, rats and pigeons may solve tasks by encoding the future, but only over very short time scales. Although some primates and corvids take actions now that are based on their future consequences, these have not been shown to be selected with reference to future motivational states, or without extensive reinforcement of the anticipatory act. However, research suggests that wester scrub-jays can spontaneously plan for tomorrow without reference to their current motivational state, thereby challenging the idea that this is a uniquely human ability.

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These birds store and recover food caches in the wild; experimental studies have shown that their ability to recover their caches depends on an episodic-like memory for the caching episode. Specifically, jays remember what food they have cached, where and when it was cached, and which other birds observed their caching. These memories are then used flexibly, both to guide their recovery of the food caches and to protect their food caches against being stolen by other birds. To the extent that episodic memory and future planning depend on common processes, the caching behaviour of these birds should reflect an ability to anticipate future need states…

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But there is longstanding opposition to the idea of suggesting that animals are capable of mental time travel. The University of Queensland psychologist Thomas Suddendorf argues that despite “ingenious attempts to demonstrate episodic memory or future simulation in non-human animals,” it still seems that “there are few signs that animals act with the flexible foresight that is so characteristic of humans.” While animals like scrub-jays might be able to adapt their behavior to make the most of their food-caching, they do not display similar flexibility outside of this narrow domain. Unlike scrub-jays, “humans,” states Suddendorf, “can simulate virtually any event and evaluate it in terms of likelihood and desirability”.

Episodic memory allows us to recall personal experiences, different from semantic memory focused on facts. This ability hints at mental time travel, envisioning oneself in past or future scenarios. Studies show similarities in the neuropsychological processes behind remembering the past and planning for the future. While some animals display prospective behaviors based on future consequences, debates persist about their ability for mental time travel. Wester scrub-jays exhibit remarkable caching behaviors, recalling what, where, when, and who observed their caches, suggesting an episodic-like memory. However, the capacity for flexible foresight akin to humans remains contentious, with arguments against attributing mental time travel abilities to animals outside specific contexts.
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