Planning for the future is one of our most important – and complex – cognitive abilities. It requires the ability to make predictions about future events or states by relying on knowledge and past experiences. More basically, it requires us to disconnect ourselves from our current state, including our current emotions and motivations, to anticipate our future emotions and motivations. Scientists call this ability “mental time travel”, or chronesthesia.
As with many cognitive abilities discussed here, the mental time travel ability was initially thought to belong only to humans (the Bischof-Köhler hypothesis). However, an ingenious study done with scrub jays has demonstrated that animals may possess this ability, too.
Scrub jays, which belong to the same family as crows and magpies, cache excess food, hiding it in various places that they can access when food is scarce. This behavior may seem like planning ahead, but it could just be an automatic response to an abundance of food or the season.
Raby et al. (2007) investigated whether scrub jays could demonstrate planning for the future in a very specific way through their caching behavior. Each jay was housed in a cage divided into three compartments. The jay was fed every evening in the middle compartment. Each of the side compartments contained a caching tray, where the jay could hide food. During the day, the jay could move freely between all of the compartments. However, each morning, the jay was restricted to one of the two side compartments for two hours. In one compartment, the jay was always fed a breakfast of (uncachable) powdered pine nuts. In the other compartment, the jay was never fed breakfast, and had to wait two hours for food.
During a training phase, each jay spent a few mornings in each of the side compartments, in order to learn the associations between one compartment and breakfast, and the other compartment and no breakfast. The jay was only fed powdered pine nuts, so no caching occurred during the training phase.
After the training phase came the critical test: when given whole pine nuts (which can be cached) in the evening, would the jay cache more nuts in the no-breakfast compartment than the breakfast compartment? Such behavior would indicate that the jay was planning for the future by caching more food where it knew food would be scarce. However, if the jay cached similar amounts of nuts in both of the side compartments, then it was not planning for the future.
Raby et al. found that the jays cached significantly more nuts in the no-breakfast compartment than in the breakfast compartment, indicating that they were planning ahead. This is especially impressive because it required the jays to take into account both their future motivational state (i.e. hunger) and future available resources (breakfast or no breakfast), and suggests that they have the ability of mental time travel.
In addition to planning for the future, mental time travel also includes remembering past events (episodic memory). There’s even evidence that these cognitive processes (planning for or imagining the future and remembering or imagining the past) involve similar areas of the brain in humans!
For a more thorough discussion of mental time travel and whether non-human animals have this ability, check out this paper.
Raby, Caroline R., et al. “Planning for the future by western scrub-jays.” Nature 445.7130 (2007): 919-921.