Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

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Crows are among the planet's most intelligent animals, teaching their young to use tools for foraging and banding together to fight off intruders. Now, the first study of how abstract reasoning works in these birds' brains could shed light on how intelligence works in a truly alien, non-mammal brain.

We've studied brain structure pretty extensively in mammals from humans and apes to whales and mice. But German neuroscientists Lena Veit and Andreas Nieder are the first to watch what happens in crow brains as these birds worked their way through a series of brain-teasers. They actually wired the crows' brains up with electrodes, watching as individual neurons fired when the crows did a test that required abstract reasoning. What Veit and Nieder found reveals a lot about what intelligence looks like in a brain that's nothing like our own.

The Evolution of Intelligence

The crow, and some of its relatives in the corvid family (such as jays and magpies), are among the only intelligent species we've encountered outside the world of mammals. But their brains are utterly different from ours. The mammalian seat of reason is in our prefrontal cortex, a thin layer of nerve-riddled tissue on the outside of the front region of our brains. Birds have no prefrontal cortex (PFC). Instead, they have the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is located toward the middle of their brains.

Written By: Annalee Newitz
continue to source article at io9.com

14 COMMENTS

  1. This is fascinating research. The “match” “not match” abstract rule defining neurons are intriguing. We know brains do coincidence/non-coincidence discrimination but might other abstract logical rule neurons be found, demonstrating a logical nativism? What elements are involved in a match? And can we see how our own cortex surface folding (sulci and gyri) affects brain function? What might we imagine the impact on conscious experience be?

    • In reply to #3 by Quine:

      Made me think of this cool crow video.

      Interesting suggestion in the comments that the object isn’t a lid but a flat container and the crow is trying to open it. The sliding is then incidental. That would explain why at the bottom of one of the slides it gives the thing a good pecking. Doesn’t explain why it keeps tacking it back to the top of the roof I guess.

      Michael

      • In reply to #5 by mmurray:

        In reply to #3 by Quine:

        Made me think of this cool crow video.

        Interesting suggestion in the comments that the object isn’t a lid but a flat container and the crow is trying to open it. The sliding is then incidental. That would explain why at the bottom of one of the slides it gives the thing a…

        Maybe he/she is also trying to open it. But why put both feet on and slide down on the snow part? They usually drop things on hard surfaces from high in the sky to break them open. I can’t get into his/her mind or tell, or even if that is lid v. container, but just thought it was cute.

        • In reply to #7 by Quine:

          In reply to #5 by mmurray:

          Maybe he/she is also trying to open it. But why put both feet on and slide down on the snow part? They usually drop things on hard surfaces from high in the sky to break them open. I can’t get into his/her mind or tell, or even if that is lid v. container, but just thought it was cute.

          Yes the opening explanation doesn’t cover all that’s going on. Having got it lodged firmly in a snow bank halfway down the roof where you can get stuck in with your beak why take it back up to the top if all you want to do is open it.

          It’s very cute.

          Michael

  2. “All surgeries were performed while the animals were under general anaesthesia. … we chronically implanted two microdrives with four electrodes each, a connector for the headstage and a small headpost to hold the reflector for the light barrier. The crows received postoperative analgesics.”

    And after the experiment was over … ?

    Michael

  3. What amazes me is just how much you can achieve with such a small brain.

    I have seen some birds caught in a loop though. There are scrub turkeys in the area I grew up. I remember offering bread to one it approached (I imagine thinking ‘yum bread’) then when it got within a certain distance stopped began to back off (I imagine thinking ‘danger’) then came forward again, then backed off then forward. I was interested to see which instinct would win but got bored after 10 minutes of this loop and threw the bread at him.

    • In reply to #9 by Reckless Monkey:

      What amazes me is just how much you can achieve with such a small brain.

      I have seen some birds caught in a loop though. There are scrub turkeys in the area I grew up. I remember offering bread to one it approached (I imagine thinking ‘yum bread’) then when it got within a certain distance stoppe…

      FYI, it’s not really a good idea to do that. Neither to feed a wild bird bread in the first place nor to get it conditioned to be less afraid of people so that it’s more likely to approach them in the future. The processed foods humans eat are really junk food to the wild animals. It’s not the kind of food that they have evolved to eat and they will most likely want lots more of it and also it will be bad for them if they eat too much of it.

      And a similar argument applies to feeding them. Every time we do that we make that bird more likely to approach people in the future. We also contribute to an environment where actual wild birds (that are afraid to approach people) have less of an advantage than birds that aren’t afraid of humans. And we end up with a world full of pigeons and crows and far less of the actually cool birds like hawks, hummers, etc.

      • In reply to #10 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #9 by Reckless Monkey:

        What amazes me is just how much you can achieve with such a small brain.

        I have seen some birds caught in a loop though. There are scrub turkeys in the area I grew up. I remember offering bread to one it approached (I imagine thinking ‘yum bread’) then when it…

        Well, neither have we… I mean, evolved to eat processed food… Still, we eat it without (at least) any short term consequences.

    • In reply to #9 by Reckless Monkey:

      What amazes me is just how much you can achieve with such a small brain.

      I went out the other day and found a small wasp’s nest on our rear wall. It was a single hemisphere about 0.5 cm across. That’s not so unusual but it was surrounded by maybe thirty attempts to start the same. They consisted of two small half circles of mud opposite each other. I couldn’t tell if the wasp was going away and coming back and the sun had moved so it abandoned an attempt due to the heat or it just got lost or the algorithm misfired. There can’t be too many neurones in an insect with a head about a millimetre wide.

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