Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Friday 30 December 2011

Animal Memory


Squirrel eating a peanut
: photo by Mariappan Jawaharlal, 18 April 2011

Animals simply do NOT "look back", in the human sense, as remorse, regret, nostalgia, etc. They are far too sensible for that. Their demonstration of some semblances of short term memory, e.g. the serial position effect, which privileges recency over anciency, is a strictly practical function. There's a bit of hippocampus activity at work there... but only the tiniest bit. In the related area of spatial memory, the scatter-hoarder creatures are thought to have some ability to relocate their scatter hoards. But this function is limited at best, as anybody who has closely observed the behaviour of squirrels would know. We had a neighbour who for many years sat in his yard feeding peanuts to the squirrels. The squirrels accepted these gifts and immediately busied themselves with burying them. But over the years, the ground became an immense cache of buried peanuts, the location of which had obviously been forgot by the squirrels who had so busily buried them. It was almost funny to watch the little guys bustling about, scrabbling at the ground in one spot after another. It became obvious that their method was to scatter their hoard so generally that, by sheer force of arithmetical chance, sooner or later they could not help but accidentally discover an ancient mouldering peanut. Clearly they had no memory whatsoever of exactly where they had put anything. The same phenomenon occurs in elderly humans.


ACravan said...

Great squirrel (and squirrel photo). The really important thing is to scatter reading glasses throughout the house (but in plain sight). The problem with that is that plain sight is only meaningful to the sufficiently sighted. I have been pondering animal memory questions for years without forming many conclusions. An interesting recent example is the way our very clever and resourceful dog Edie looks up to and absolutely dotes on Eddie, one of our two large cats. A couple of years ago, Eddie sliced open her ear (it was horrible but repairable). You might think Edie would give Eddie wide berth, but she's still crazy about him and constantly importunes him to play. He, on the other hand, has simply learned to peacefully ignore her. Curtis

aditya said...


Thank you for the exposition on the nutty behavior of squirrels.

Some of the birds my father feeds eat whatever is offered on the spot. And when they're hungry I suppose they come and knock our glass window panes.Its quite an experience.

'The same phenomenon occurs in elderly humans'

Some .. food for thought.

Ps- word verification : chipc.
I am all of a sudden remembering chip n dale though they never have been a 'thing to remember'.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Just watched a documentary on intelligence in crows - also news just this week concerning pigeons with levels of intellect up there with chimpanzees.

This cuts through much of what is speculated there. Plus, the last line drops like the other shoe ... bringing it all home.

Thanks, Tom.



Ah, what a great "punch line"! -- I was about to say, as comment, "sounds like me" -- "serial position effect," just keep "scrabbling". . . .


light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, still black shape of pine branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

as and yet will cease to be,
previous indeed shall

at the same time, a kind of
to which, one another

white circle of sun rising through fog,
shadowed green of ridge across channel

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

These last two sentences had me squirming in my chair--fortunately I remembered where I'd put it!

Can't say the same for a lot of other things (specially books and pens) which I seem to misplace all the time--some time back I even went to one of my classes wearing two different shoes. Funny but scary.

TC said...

Memory: curse, burden, blessing?

Great is the power of memory, O my God, to be in awe of, a profound and immeasurable multiplicity; and this thing is my mind, this thing am I.

-- Augustine, Confessions

It is the heaviest of all human baggage.

Pues el delito mayor
Del hombre es haber nacido.

-- Pedro Calderón de la Barca: La vida es sueño

agenbite of inwit

-- Joyce, Ulysses

Joyce's reiterated phrase refers back to the medieval confessional prose work The Ayenbite of Inwyt, or Aȝenbite of Inwit, literally Prick (or Remorse) of Conscience -- the self-inflicted wound of self-knowledge, which comes with the itch that cannot be scratched, the human disease of memory.

I am afraid to think what I have done.

Look on't again, I dare not.

-- Macbeth, to Lady Macbeth

For animals the issue simply never comes up.

Nin Andrews said...

Studies on animal intelligence continue, and it seems that the results are evolving . . .

I don't know a lot about squirrel intelligence, but I have seen some pretty smart rats and mice--esp. in the lab who, given the right rewards, can do an amazing array of activities and seem to recall exactly what to do and when and how.

As a girl I remember those intelligence charts where the cows and horses were way down there, and then when I raised them, they seemed to be just as smart as they needed to be. Even the chickens were capable of affection and liked to hop up for a pat and seemed to know the difference btw friend and foe.

But there were evolutionary aspects I wondered about, and still do, both in animals and humans.

TC said...

Nin, It would be silly to say that animals aren't intelligent, in many ways they are more intelligent than people. But the kind of memory that people possess -- that "should have, would have, could have" recursive memory, which never stops haunting us with second (and third and fourth...) thoughts, and keeps us from sleeping by lighting up in glaring vivid illumination all those roads not taken, is something animals appear to be happily free from.

Consider it not so deeply.

-- Lady Macbeth

I can't imagine a lioness saying that to a lion.

Nor can I imagine a fish or a badger having a Proustian teacup-madeleine moment. Perhaps they'd remember a food smell. But write a novel about it?

Augustine's beautiful exposition of the great power of memory (a form of will, in his formulation) to retrieve the past (and thus to retrieve the self, and "do it over") drew this comment from a great scholar of medieval philosophy:

Memory thus becomes the deepest hidden recess of the mind, in which God dwells by his light, and where he teaches us as our "internal Master".

-- Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages

But God's light does not dwell in animals, lucky for them, in their dim, conscience-free, natural, intact, intelligent, physical existences, thank heaven.

I think the Jungian view of a collective memory is very interesting, but again, it covers only the collective memory of humans.

We are dreaming all the time. The dream is there; we can never leave it. Part of the soul is continually remembering in mythopoetic speech, continually seeing, feeling, and hearing sub specie aeternitais. Experience reverberates with memories, and it echoes reminiscences we may never actually have lived.

-- James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis

Some may find it a blessing to share in this, others not so much.