Are our animals able to store and recall information? In short, to have memories… and to remember them? With Robert Jaffard, neurobiologist specializing in the study of memory and member of the B2V Observatory of Memories, we delved into this huge question.
Spatial memory? Yes !
This memory, non-declarative and therefore more or less conscious, is the ability to register information about the space in which one develops and to orient oneself in it. Studies that have fitted outdoor cats 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 animal’s path, like a mental cartography superimposed on the surroundings.
Procedural memory? Of course
We are still here in an automatic memory that is not verbalized: learning gestures, through repetition, which then becomes almost instinctive, like learning a sport or a musical instrument. In dogs, it is their ability to perform physical exercises or use toys or puzzles with increasingly surprising dexterity.
Smelly memory? It’s even the nature of the beast
Dogs and cats have a sense of smell that is far better than ours. They use information recorded by smell to benefit other types of memory. Marie-Line tells us about her dog Moka, a Shar-Pei: “Whatever she does, at 12:15 Moka stops, walks towards the door and doesn’t move. I don’t need a watch to know it’s time for my husband to come home”. A story about smells down there? And yes, smells can make it possible to perceive time via smells linked to past events that gradually fade. Thus, their master’s value would decrease after his departure until it reached a certain threshold, which the dog would have associated with the usual time of his return, as remembered by the B2V Observatory of Memories.
Associative memory? The most interesting
It is the basis of our animals’ learning and behavior. This memory exists in two forms. First, classical or Pavlovian conditioning. Véronique has reproduced Pavlov’s experience in her own way. 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 a noise with it, I see them all coming back”. It is also the mechanism put in place in Agnès’s testimony: “My cat recognizes when we arrive at the sea in the Vendée. Five minutes before arrival he wakes up and meows all the way to the house”. The cat has memorized signals that might are invisible to you, but which trigger a physical reaction and a feeling. 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 go through anything: it is its behavior that triggers a situation. And the more pleasant the situation, the faster the animal learns!
Episodic memory? Not in the strict sense
We are talking here about declarative, conscious and verbalizable memory, and therefore, not surprisingly: it gets complicated. Episodic memory is remembering 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 forest trip. Months later, again at the same highway rest stop, he rushed to the spot where we had seen him digging! “. Great story. We find the “what” (the ham) and the “where” (the hole), but was our little tip able to remember “when” the treasure dated? Episodic memory is also linked, in humans, to self-awareness and the ability to see himself reliving this event. Impossible to know if this is the case for Bénédicte’s dog. We would rather talk about episodic “type” memory.
Semantic memory? Nothing in common with man
Semantic memory is our ability to accumulate in consciousness, no longer precise memories, but general data about the world around us: it is our encyclopedic memory. Naturally, 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 literally remember concepts ingested at an earlier time.