Whether animals have the capacity to mentally
travel through time and plan for the future is a controversial and highly
debated subject. “Mental time travel” in humans is defined as the ability to mentally
project oneself backwards or forwards in time to re-live or plan for future events
(Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). The capacity to plan for the future is strongly
linked to episodic memory, and is generally considered an ability that only
animals with a higher cognitive capacity are able to perform.
memory allows access to a personally experienced event, that is, the subject remembers
specific situations and the emotions associated. In contrast, semantic memory relates
only to the knowledge learnt from said event (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). It
is suggested that non-human animals simply remember the facts of an event and
the associations learnt from it. Whether non-human animals are able to recall a
specific personal event, like humans are able to, is controversial (DERE et
al., 2006). In a study by Hampton (2001), it was indicated that monkeys may
have the ability to understand what they remember; a cognitive ability
previously thought to only exist in humans. The monkeys were given a choice to
perform a memory test for a high value reward if correct, or to decline the
memory test which provided a lower value reward. The choice to decline a memory
test depended on the ability of the subject to assess either the presence or
absence of memory itself. This study showed that, like humans, monkeys were
able to assess at least some of their own knowledge states, whereas pigeons
tested in the same way appeared to lack this ability.
(2002) suggested that animals do not have a subjective sense of time and their
ability to anticipate rewards at certain times of day is simply by using their
internal states which change throughout the day. These circadian rhythms allow
animals to develop time-place learning (Roberts and Feeney, 2009). However, the
suggestion that animals are “stuck in time”, does not mean that animals have absolutely
no concept of time of day or that they do not have memory, as they are able to
remember commands and can anticipate feeding at the same time each day (Roberts
and Feeney, 2009).
imaging demonstrated frontal and temporal lobe activity both when human subjects
were asked to remember the past and when they imagined the future (Okuda et
al., 2003). However, there are specific areas in the frontal pole and medial
temporal lobes that are more involved in future planning than remembering the
past (Okuda et al., 2003, Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). This indicates that
memory shares cognitive resources with mental time travel (Suddendorf and
Rosenbaum et al. (2005) provided an account
of a patient called “KC” who lived with amnesia. He was able to partake in most
daily activities with the guidance of reminders from family members, and
remembered how to play pool, chess, card games, and the organ. Overall his life
may seem like that of any other adult male, however he was unable to remember
any single event that he had experienced (Mendl and Paul, 2008). It has become
apparent that his lack of episodic memory has had an effect on future thinking,
so when asked what he will be doing later, KC was unable to provide an answer.
He was unable to imagine his future or remember his past (Tulving, 2002, Mendl
and Paul, 2008)
hypothesis proposes that non-human animals have an inability to comprehend
their future needs and instinctive behaviours, which limits their capacity for
mental time travel. That is, non-human animals are unable to differentiate
future states from present ones (Bischof-Köhler, 1985). Only humans are able to
flexibly anticipate future mental states and understand how to act now to
secure them (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2008).
Superficially this cannot be true as there
are many species which act to secure their future needs, however this
hypothesis may be useful once applied to individual situations (Suddendorf and
Corballis, 2007). As current behaviour will categorically have an effect on
future survival, the ability to implement mental time travel and foresight in
animals should have a positive effect on survival (Suddendorf and Busby, 2005).
Some recurring environmental problems such as food shortages mean that storing
food for future is a practical solution. This relies on the ability of the
animal to remember where the food is stored, however may not necessarily imply
that the animal envisages the future or plans for it specifically as humans do
(Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007).
gain a full understanding of mental time travel and foresight, it is important
to rule out chance, innate predispositions, and procedural and semantic
prospection (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). Simple prospective behaviours may
appear to involve the anticipation of future events, however may not actually
involve planning (Clayton et al., 2003). Future-orientated instinctual
behaviours include those such as nest and burrow building to raise future
offspring in, or the gathering of food for hibernation (Suddendorf and Busby,
2005). Hibernation is another species specific instinctual behaviour that will
occur even if the animal has not yet experienced winter, so does not rely on
memory of previous events (Suddendorf and Busby, 2003).
has been found that past experiences have an effect on the future emotional
state of animals through learning associations between cues and emotional
events, and through cumulative effects which alter stress responses, baseline
stress levels, or mood (Mendl and Paul, 2008).
best evidence for mental time travel so far involves scrub jays. The current available
evidence suggests that scrub jays possess “www memory”. They are able to
encode, store, and recall information about what, where, and when they cached
food (Suddendorf and Busby, 2003). The ability to evaluate how long food has
been stored for was shown when fresh worms were chosen over nuts, whereas worms
that had been stored long enough for them to start to decay were not chosen
over nuts (Clayton and Dickinson, 1998, Clayton et al., 2003, Suddendorf and
(2006) also showed that presence of other scrub jays had an effect on caching
food. If the subject was aware of another bird watching while caching food,
they were far more likely to return and change where the food has been stored.
This may indicate that these scrub jays were able to think ahead and anticipate
that another bird may steal their cached food.
et al. (2007) showed that non-hungry western scrub-jays cached more food in a
place where they were more likely to experience hunger in future compared to a
place where food was readily available at all times. However, this may be
demonstrating counterbalancing food sources.
of future planning has been observed in other species as well as scrub-jays. In
a study by Naqshbandi and Roberts (2006) squirrel monkeys and rats who were not
thirsty were provided with food that induced thirst, and then were deprived of
water. If the subject chose the larger quantity of food, water was withheld for
a longer period than if they chose the smaller amount. Gradually the animals
reversed their preference for choosing larger quantities of food (Suddendorf
and Corballis, 2010). Mulcahy (2006) found that bonobos and orangutans both
selected, transported, and saved tools that allowed them to gain food one hour,
then 14 hours later, well above baseline levels. Raby and Clayton (2009) argued
that while apes showed future-orientated behaviours, hunger is a current state
so it can be argued that this cannot count as future planning. It has been well
demonstrated that animals are able to express local expectation of future
events such as goal directed behaviours, such as pressing on a lever for food.
However, this does not confirm future planning or anticipation of future
events, as reinforcement over a few seconds or minutes is not a clear enough demonstration
since instrumental responses for a reward by a hungry animal is controlled by
current motivational state (Clayton et al., 2003).
future mental time travel the “when” is particularly important as the subject
must be able to separate the future mental state from the current to ensure a
future need will be satisfied, independent of current state (Clayton et al.,
2003). Considering the similarities between animal and human foresight abilities
should immediately prompt the discussion of how these abilities are not
similar, to prevent mistaking similarity for equivalence. For example, the well
documented temporal capacities of scrub-jays are related to food caching,
whereas the human ability to time travel is characterised by a large range and
flexibility (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2008).
literature reviewed in this essay suggests that future planning in animals may
be more short term than in humans, however it satiates the animal’s needs. Foresight
may not be “all or nothing”, and it is possible that there is a spectrum indicating
that different animals have different amounts of foresight for their different
requirements (Raby and Clayton, 2009). It may be possible that some animal
species have autobiographical knowledge including episodic memory that they are
able to recall and utilise in the short term, if not the long term, without
having the fully developed cognitive systems of an adult human (Raby and
Clayton, 2009). The ability to mentally time travel does not develop in humans
until the age of approximately four years of age (Perner, 1991), therefore it
is reasonable to assume that some animals may have some ability to perform
mental time travel similar to that of children.
the existence of mental time travel in animals is a difficult task without having
the ability to communicate with animals. At the current time, it is not
possible to prove either the existence or absence of this ability in animals,
however future developments in research techniques may allow the capacity of
this ability to be further understood. Mental time travel has previously been
thought of as a human-only ability, therefore if this was found in non-human
animals, it would have a large impact on how we view animal intelligence and
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