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Jackdaws have a human-like response to memory overload

A new study led by the Ruhr University Bochum has scrutinized the memory capabilities of jackdaws

The experts found that, like humans, jackdaws have memories that become less precise and more biased as the workload gets heavier.

Focus of the study

The research involved training two birds to accurately remember colors, with varying amounts of food offered based on the precision of their responses. 

The researchers introduced manipulations to assess working memory demands, such as altering the duration of color retention or requiring the birds to remember multiple colors simultaneously. 

The reward structure was designed to incentivize the birds to respond with maximum accuracy.

Working memory 

“Working memory (WM) is a crucial element of the higher cognition of primates and corvid songbirds. Despite its importance, WM has a severely limited capacity and is vulnerable to noise,” wrote the study authors. 

“In primates, attractor dynamics mitigate the effect of noise by discretizing continuous information. Yet, it remains unclear whether similar dynamics are seen in avian brains.” 

“Here, we show jackdaws (Corvus monedula) have similar behavioral biases as humans; memories are less precise and more biased as memory demands increase.”

Cognitive overload

The researchers found that there was a decline in the birds’ performance when subjected to higher demands on their working memory. 

“The functioning of working memory can be seen, for example, in the challenges faced by service staff who have to remember large orders,” said lead author Aylin Apostel, a biologist at Bochum. 

Generalized recollection 

Similar to humans, jackdaws exhibited reduced accuracy and a propensity for biased representations under increased working memory demands. 

This translated into less precise and biased memories, analogous to a waiter delivering two lattes instead of a latte macchiato and a cappuccino, due to heightened working memory demands leading to a more generalized recollection.

Attractor dynamics 

The researchers highlighted attractor dynamics as a fundamental biological principle governing this phenomenon. 

“Attractor dynamics act as a fundamental principle in the brains of corvids and primates, which ultimately direct memories into specific categories,” explained senior author Jonas Rose.

This mechanism biases memory representations, enhancing overall memory performance despite a reduction in precision. 

Significantly, this principle proved equally effective in the brains of both corvids and primates, despite their divergent evolutionary paths, suggesting a fundamental biological principle for efficient working memory utilization.

Study implications 

By comparing primates and jackdaws, the study offers insights into the evolution and adaptability of working memory. 

“The discovery of common principles in different brains offers promising approaches for the further development of generally valid models that explain the cognitive functioning of animals and humans,” concluded Apostel. 

The study not only deepens our understanding of avian cognition but also provides a foundation for developing comprehensive models to elucidate cognitive functioning across diverse species.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications Biology.

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