Cognition without Cortex
March 6, 2016 6:02 AM   Subscribe

“Delay of gratification, mental time travel, reasoning, metacognition, mirror self-recognition, theory of mind, and third-party intervention.” A review article published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences describes certain bird species demonstrating these complex cognitive functions.

There are some similarities in the way certain parts of bird and mammalian brains are wired, although in different brain structures–there is no frontal cortex in birds. It may be that complex cognitive functions evolved independently in birds and mammals in response to similar evolutionary pressures.

The DOI for the article.

Previously, previouslier.
posted by seyirci (21 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
This may be slightly off topic but a ted talk that I heard a bit on the radio suggests the key between smart animals and us is that humans tell tall tales. (very off topic, but it's because we lost our tails that we need to tell tales :-)
posted by sammyo at 6:09 AM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

One up on people, then.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:42 AM on March 6, 2016

Someday, scientists are going to find evidence of dinosaur nesting sites that will essentially be settlements with dwellings. There, I said it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:49 AM on March 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

The tall tale I tell myself every April is that a single barn swallow scout arrives to scope out last year's nests, and returns to the flock to say that the beams and mud nests are still there, as ever. Welcome back to the barn, my friends! Hurry home!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:54 AM on March 6, 2016

As said before, wish there was a minor competition for best FPP title of the month, or something like that. This one made me smile* and I'd vote for it.

*Imagining the mods in their hi-tech beneath-volcano MetaFilter island lair seeing this post, and one of them crying out "Hey!" in a disgruntled manner.
posted by Wordshore at 7:10 AM on March 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

Birds...kind of scare the shit out of me. Like, considering their evolutionary history, I can't help but wonder if they're the real bosses of this planet, looking down on us with their unfathomable intellects, darkly amused by our inability to control our compulsion to build stuff. (insert Herzog chicken quote here)
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:13 AM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Or – and the authors consider this more likely – they evolved independently of each other, because both animal groups faced the same challenges.

It's not like this hasn't happened with other structures in bodies -- wings are a good example. We like to privilege brains because ours are large and useful, but that doesn't mean that brains are somehow magically different from other organs.

In mammals, cognitive skills are controlled by the multi-layered cerebral cortex, also called neocortex.

I thought neocortex was cortex from that mirror universe, where the mods all wear black latex/leather and sunglasses all the time and have to ban Hugo Weaving 2-3 times a week for self linking.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:27 AM on March 6, 2016 [11 favorites]

Just makes me love Corvids more
posted by Dub at 8:34 AM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's quite possible that dinosaurs had a civilization of sorts, since the more common hallmarks of civilization are very difficult to check for 65 million years later. Also, it's a pretty good chance that, like us, any civilized period will be exceptionally brief compared to the rest of the fossil record.

Also, birds uplifted us to build bird houses and feeders for them. The cat domestication thing was an unfortunate side effect.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:44 AM on March 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Keeping birds and livestock has taught me that animals who live in herd or flock have sophisticated social intelligence with complex relationships and nuance beyond what I could have expected. In retrospect, duh.
posted by Lou Stuells at 8:57 AM on March 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

what the
posted by cortex at 9:04 AM on March 6, 2016 [41 favorites]

Us bird owners knew this alrea He's right behind me isn't he?
posted by Splunge at 11:20 AM on March 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

(uh cortex sorry that's the title of the review paper itself i swear)

*insert sweatdrop emoji here*
posted by seyirci at 11:22 AM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've long declared that while other websites are 'smart', only MetaFilter is INTELLIGENT. Only this site has a Cortex.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:12 PM on March 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

"'What is clear is that the multi-layered mammalian cortex is not required for complex cognition,' concludes Güntürkün. 'The absolute brain weight is not relevant for mental abilities, either.' While ape brains weigh 275 to 500 gram on average, birds, who are just as skilful despite lacking a cortex, only manage 5 to 20 gram."

It'll be funny if the mass and body-brain mass ratios being so different eventually ends up being attributed to birds' different evolutionary approach to intelligence being more structurally efficient.
posted by constantinescharity at 12:39 PM on March 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

I bet myself before clicking the link that the review article was by Nicky Clayton and Nathan Emery. I lost.

I'm always glad to see the avian neuroscientists fighting the good fight here; I think the evidence for avian intelligence on par with mammalian intelligence has been solid for a long time now, and the idea that the avian brain is somehow simpler or "less evolved" (whatever that means) than the mammalian brain has been demonstrably false for decades now. But shockingly, you still get fairly well-known neuroscientists with illustrious research careers repeating the "triune brain" nonsense (according to which birds have only a highly developed "reptilian brain," not the "mammalian brain" we have) on a regular basis.

The reality is that the basic architecture of the vertebrate forebrain seems to have been established very early in the evolution of our lineage; if I recall correctly, it's unclear if hagfish or lamprey have all the major tissue components, but otherwise they're present in all vertebrates, and wired into more or less the same circuitry. Mammals and birds have heavily elaborated upon the basic architecture in somewhat different ways (mammals evolved the neocortex, birds evolved a more densely packed nucleus-based structure), but it seems more and more clear that to a large extent the forebrains of birds and mammals derived their capacity for sophisticated processing and cognitive behavior from aspects of the ancestral vertebrate forebrain. In fact, as I understand it, it's still not even clear whether the ancestral state of the forebrain is more similar to that of mammals or of birds; the non-avian reptiles, for example, have a thin layered "cortex-like" tissue, about which not a whole lot is known (there is almost no funding available for studies of neural function in reptiles), and the teleost fish (i.e., most or all of the fish you're thinking of right now) have this weird thing in development where their forebrains kind of flip inside-out, which is almost certainly a derived trait.

In conclusion, the brain is a land of contrasts.
posted by biogeo at 2:51 PM on March 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

constantinescharity, this is exactly my pet theory: the structure of the bird brain is a weight optimization for flight. I have no evidence for it.
posted by biogeo at 2:52 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

That crow photograph illustrating the article is beautiful. Tineye couldn't find any other instance. It looks like an orignial from Jana Muller.

I went looking for similar with the google image search and got distracted by this: crow riding atop bald eagle.
posted by bukvich at 5:29 PM on March 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wow, that's pretty funny. Comes off as a touch petty. He and Nicky Clayton have definitely done a tremendous amount to advance this idea, but they're hardly the only ones, and Onur Gunturkun has certainly done his share of the work. If I were Nathan Emery I'd just be glad the idea is getting more attention.
posted by biogeo at 8:26 PM on March 6, 2016

Birds have had several million more years of evolution than even the most primitive apes, so it shouldn't be surprising (...if it is confirmed) that they've developed more efficient brains - in terms of size and metabolic cost.
posted by Anoplura at 9:07 PM on March 6, 2016

Birds have had several million more years of evolution than even the most primitive apes

Birds and apes have had the exact same number of years of evolution.
posted by IjonTichy at 3:25 AM on March 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

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