Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Crows possess higher intelligence long thought a primarily human attribute

Sharon Begley writes:

Whether crows, ravens, and other “corvids” are making multipart tools like hooked sticks to reach grubs, solving geometry puzzles made famous by Aesop, or nudging a clueless hedgehog across a highway before it becomes roadkill, they have long impressed scientists with their intelligence and creativity.

Now the birds can add one more feather to their brainiac claims: Research unveiled on Thursday in Science finds that crows know what they know and can ponder the content of their own minds, a manifestation of higher intelligence and analytical thought long believed the sole province of humans and a few other higher mammals.

A second study, also in Science, looked in unprecedented detail at the neuroanatomy of pigeons and barn owls, finding hints to the basis of their intelligence that likely applies to corvids’, too.

“Together, the two papers show that intelligence/consciousness are grounded in connectivity and activity patterns of neurons” in the most neuron-dense part of the bird brain, called the pallium, neurobiologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University, who wrote an analysis of the studies for Science, told STAT. “Brains can appear diverse, and at the same time share profound similarities. The extent to which similar properties present themselves might be simply a matter of scale: how many neurons are available to work.”

Understanding the minds of nonhuman animals promises to shed light on the origins of such cognitive abilities as, in this case, knowing and analyzing the contents of one’s own brain. That’s how people solve challenges and make discoveries — what do I know? what if I look at it this way? — and it’s a pillar of higher intelligence. Knowing what you know is also a form of consciousness, and the discovery that more and more nonhumans seem to have it raises tricky questions about how we treat them. [Continue reading…]

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