If it makes you feel any better, humans aren’t the only animals that forget things. Researchers have found that homing pigeons do the same. The new findings, they add, suggest an underlying continuity across the human and animal world in how the brain works.
The knack of remembering and forgetting is the brain’s way of filtering information to manage its limited storage capacity. For example, you briefly store information about trees and cars around you in your working memory, but if someone tells you to focus on a speeding truck, your brain uses a process called executive control to remember that object longer. Meanwhile, you forget the others. In humans, this filtering is performed by the prefrontal cortex.
To test whether the avian brain has a similar filtering mechanism, Michael Colombo, a neuroscientist at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and colleagues subjected homing pigeons to a memory test. First, the researchers trained the birds to know that a high tone means they should remember an object, while a low tone means they can forget it. They then showed the birds one of two shapes (circles or dots) or colors (blue and green). After a bird pecked three times at the image, the researchers sounded a tone. Birds that heard the remember cue fired up neurons in a region of their brain analogous to the human prefrontal cortex (as measured via implanted electrodes), Colombo’s team reports today in PLos Biology. And those birds did, in fact, remember the objects: 79% of the time, they correctly pecked at the original object again when shown multiple images 3 seconds later. In contrast, birds that heard the forget cue did not exhibit sustained activation of the same brain area, and only in about 44% of cases did the birds correctly identify the original object. Thus, the researchers argue the birds use a similar mechanism as humans to filter their memories.
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