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Western Scrub Jays Are Capable of Metacognition

Evidence suggests that humans are not the only animals that can think about thinking



JOEL SARTORE Getty Images

When you do not know the answer to a question, say, a crossword puzzle hint, you realize your shortcomings and devise a strategy for finding the missing information. The ability to identify the state of your knowledge—thinking about thinking—is known as metacognition. It is hard to tell whether other animals are also capable of metacognition because we cannot ask them; studies of primates and birds have not yet been able to rule out simpler explanations for this complex process.

Scientists know, however, that some animals, such as western scrub jays, can plan for the future. Western scrub jays, corvids native to western North America, are a favorite of cognitive scientists because they are not “stuck in time”—that is, they are able to remember past events and are known to cache their food in anticipation of hunger, according to psychologist Arii Watanabe of the University of Cambridge. But the question remained: Are they aware that they are planning?

Watanabe devised a way to test them. He let five birds watch two researchers hide food, in this case a wax worm. The first researcher could hide the food in any of four cups lined up in front of him. The second had three covered cups, so he could place the food only in the open one. The trick was that the researchers hid their food at the same time, forcing the birds to choose which one to watch.

If the jays were capable of metacognition, Watanabe surmised, the birds should realize that they could easily find the second researcher's food. The wax worm had to be in the singular open cup. They should instead prefer keeping their eyes on the setup with four open cups because witnessing where that food went would prove more useful in the future. And that is exactly what happened: the jays spent more time watching the first researcher. The results appeared in the July issue of the journal Animal Cognition.

Friederike Hillemann, who studies corvids at the University of Göttingen in Germany, thinks the experiment is an elegant way to determine whether animals are capable of reasoning about their own knowledge states. Although this experiment did not directly test consciousness, the findings are exciting because they provide further evidence that humans are not the only species with the ability to think about their thought processes. Or, as Watanabe put it, “some birds study for a test like humans do.”

This article was originally published with the title "The Thinker."

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