Saturnian travel literature

Dance Dance Metabolism

Bird brained

I’ve discussed the weirdly high intelligence of parrots before, but here’s more evidence that birds can be quite brilliant — and even have a “theory of mind”. A theory of mind is the ability to understand that other beings are sentient and have their own personal thoughts. Children generally develop this at 18 months, and you can because they learn to follow the gaze of another person and understand something about the gazer’s thoughts and internal state.

Pretty sophisticated, eh? Except that a couple of British scientists recently did “theory of mind” experiments with ravens and found that they, too, seemed to be able to grok complex stuff about a human gazer. More interestingly, raven seem to know when other ravens are checking them out, and are able to dissemble and deceive. As The Economist reports, one scientist noticed a particularly weird interaction between two ravens, one dominant and one subordinate:

The task was to work out which colour-coded film containers held some bits of cheese, then prise the containers open and eat the contents. The subordinate male was far better at this task than the dominant. However, he never managed to gulp down more than a few pieces of the reward before the dominant raven, Munin, was hustling him on his way. Clearly (and not unexpectedly) ravens are able to learn about food sources from one another. They are also able to bully each other to gain access to that food.

But then something unexpected happened. Hugin, the subordinate, tried a new strategy. As soon as Munin bullied him, he headed over to a set of empty containers, prised the lids off them enthusiastically, and pretended to eat. Munin followed, whereupon Hugin returned to the loaded containers and ate his fill.

At first Dr Bugnyar could not believe what he was seeing. He was anxious about sharing his observation, for fear that no one would believe him. But Hugin, he is convinced, was clearly misleading Munin.

(Thanks to Robots.net for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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