Crumb Trail
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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Mental time travel in animals?

"Do animals reminisce about the good old days and ponder what the future might hold for them? Humans frequently engage in such mental time travel (MTT), reliving past events and entertaining possible future scenarios [1,2] ( Box 1). It has been argued that MTT is unique to humans [1,3,4] , and that its emergence was a prime mover in hominid evolution [1]. Recently, a series of innovative studies on food-storing scrub jays has raised doubt about this claim. In recovering stored food, these birds appear to act in ways that depend on what they stored where and when in the past [5–8] , and on what they might expect to happen in the future [9]. This has sparked interest in similar capacities in other species [10,11] . Although we applaud these efforts, we argue here that current evidence does not yet warrant crediting other species with MTT. By examining other characteristics of MTT we point to different ways in which evidence could be obtained if the competence were to exist in animals."


Scrub jays would benefit from having very accurate records of their caches, an objective that would perhaps not be served best by a generative reconstructive mechanism. Although food storing evolved independently in several species, mechanisms homologous to those involved in human MTT are more likely to be found in our primate relatives. However, humans might have evolved MTT quite recently. The earliest potential evidence could be bifacial hand axes some 1.6 million years ago, which appear to have been made and kept for repeated future use [1]. The only sure evidence of MTT, however, comes from writing.

In the earliest writings, the ancient Greeks describe the myth of Prometheus. Prometheus created humanity. He stole fire from heaven to give humans powers of the gods that distinguished them from other animals. He brought culture and technology. Prometheus literally means foresight.

posted by back40 | 9/17/2003 01:27:00 PM


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