Do our animals have the memory of elephants or goldfish?

Are our animals able to store and recall information? In short, to have memories… and to remember them? With Robert Jaffard, neurobiologist specialized in the study of memory and member of the B2V Observatory of Memories, we immersed ourselves in this vast question.

Spatial memory? Yes !

This memory, non-declarative and therefore more or less conscious, is the capacity to record information on the space in which one evolves and to orient oneself in it. Studies that have equipped cats with outdoor access with a GPS tracker reveal that they sometimes make complex journeys of several kilometers, but always find their way to the bowl. In the brain, a path of neurons has been activated along the path of the animal, like a mental cartography superimposed on that of the environment.

Procedural memory? Sure

We are still here in an automatic memory, which is not verbalized: the learning of gestures, by dint of repetition, which then become almost instinctive, like learning a sport or a musical instrument. In dogs, it is their ability to perform physical exercises or to use food-dispensing toys or puzzle-feeders with increasingly surprising dexterity.

Olfactory memory? It’s even the nature of the animal

Dogs and cats have olfactory abilities far superior to ours. They use information recorded by smell for the benefit of other types of memory. Marie-Line tells us about her dog Moka, a Shar-Pei: “Whatever she is doing, at 12:15, Moka stops, heads for the gate and doesn’t move. I don’t need a clock to know that it’s time for my husband to come home”. A story of smells down there? And yes, olfaction could make it possible to perceive time via odors linked to past events which gradually fade. Thus, that of their master would decrease after his departure, until reaching a certain threshold that the dog would have associated with the usual time of his return, as recalled by the B2V Observatory of Memories.

Associative memory? The most interesting

It is the foundation of the learning and behavior of our animals. This memory exists in two forms. First, classical or Pavlovian conditioning. Véronique has, in her own way, reproduced Pavlov’s experience. She tells us: “My cats recognize the sound of the old ceramic bowl that was used for mash. If I have the misfortune to make noise with it, I see them all come back”. This is also the mechanism that is put in place in the testimony of Agnès: “My cat recognizes when we arrive at the seaside in Vendée. Five minutes before arriving, he wakes up and meows all the way to the house”. The cat has memorized cues that may be invisible to you, but that trigger a physical reaction and an emotion. And there is operant conditioning: the animal performs an action that is followed by a consequence. If the consequence is positive (he gets food or his toy), he will make the connection and learn to repeat this behavior. This is the most effective form of memorization, because the animal does not undergo anything: it is its behavior that triggers a situation. And the more pleasant the situation, the faster the animal will learn!

Episodic memory? Not in the strict sense

We are talking here about declarative, conscious and verbalizable memory, and therefore, unsurprisingly: it gets complicated. Episodic memory is remembering the what, where, and when. Can dogs and cats do this? There is debate. Bénédicte testifies: “On the holiday route, we always stopped at the same motorway service area. My spitz went to bury a piece of ham received during the picnic. Months later, again on this same motorway rest area, he rushed to the place where we had seen him digging! “. Amazing story. We find the “what” (the ham) and the “where” (the hole), but was our little spitz able to remember “when” the treasure dated? Episodic memory is also linked, in humans, to self-awareness and the ability to see oneself relive this event. Impossible to know if this is the case for Bénédicte’s dog. We will rather speak of episodic “type” memory.

Semantic memory? Nothing in common with man

Semantic memory is our capacity to accumulate in consciousness no longer precise memories but general data on the world around us: it is our encyclopedic memory. Of course, the animal is able to extract information from its experiences, like the chimpanzee with words, the parrot with sentences, or the elephant with people. But here again, there is no evidence today that animals can travel through time by thought, to remember, in the literal sense, concepts ingested at an earlier date.

Leave a Comment