Evidence suggests that humans are not the only animals that can think about thinking

Scientific American September 2014


When you do not know the answer to a question, say, a crossword puzzle hint, you realize your shortcomings and devise a strategy for finding the missing information. The ability to identify the state of your knowledge—thinking about thinking—is known as metacognition. It is hard to tell whether other animals are also capable of metacognition because we cannot ask them; studies of primates and birds have not yet been able to rule out simpler explanations for this complex process.

Scientists know, however, that some animals, such as western scrub jays, can plan for the future. Western scrub jays, corvids native to western North America, are a favorite of cognitive scientists because they are not “stuck in time”—that is, they are able to remember past events and are known to cache their food in anticipation of hunger, according to psychologist Arii Watanabe of the University of Cambridge. But the question remained: Are they aware that they are planning?

Watanabe devised a way to test them. He let five birds watch two researchers hide food, in this case a wax worm. The first researcher could hide the food in any of four cups lined up in front of him. The second had three covered cups, so he could place the food only in the open one. The trick was that the researchers hid their food at the same time, forcing the birds to choose which one to watch.

If the jays were capable of metacognition, Watanabe surmised, the birds should realize that they could easily find the second researcher’s food. The wax worm had to be in the singular open cup. They should instead prefer keeping their eyes on the setup with four open cups because witnessing where that food went would prove more useful in the future. And that is exactly what happened: the jays spent more time watching the first researcher. The results appeared in the July issue of the journal Animal Cognition.

Friederike Hillemann, who studies corvids at the University of Göttingen in Germany, thinks the experiment is an elegant way to determine whether animals are capable of reasoning about their own knowledge states. Although this experiment did not directly test consciousness, the findings are exciting because they provide further evidence that humans are not the only species with the ability to think about their thought processes. Or, as Watanabe put it, “some birds study for a test like humans do.”

Failure

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When I experience some that I perceive as a failure, I go into a panic and feel like crying. The urge to cry that seems so perplexing, so I started to think about why this might occur. It finally dawned on me why I react so strongly and emotionally.

The first time I ever experienced a big failure, I was 15. I had tried out to be a high-school majorette and failed. Certainly, before that time I had not succeeded at everything I tried, but this was first time I didn’t succeed at something I desperately wanted despite no indication that I could be successful in my attempt.

In junior high, now known as middle school, I lost all social standing. Being smart had no currency; being a cute girl in fashionable clothing did. I wore my bargain-store clothes and hand-me-downs on my gawky frame, my legs about 3/4 of my body height, and no one considered me cute. The best friend I had from sixth grade would only speak to me at lunch, when I still was allowed to sit at a table with other girls. They didn’t speak to me much, they sometimes mocked me, but it was all I had. I didn’t have the nerve to approach a different table.

At this time I knew a girl, Eileen Temkin, from gym class. We were both skinny nerds but she had loads of confidence. She tried to convince me many times to go to a school dance with her. I didn’t understand her. Why go humiliate myself? I already knew what boys thought of me — a “dog”. That’s what they called me. Why stand there and not be asked to dance? Eileen didn’t care. She thought she could get someone to dance with her.

She decided to start a squad of baton twirlers, who she called majorettes, to attend sports functions at the school. She strongly encouraged me to try out. I begged my Mom to buy me a baton. I had no money of my own. My Mom did relent, but just bought me a cheap toy one. She said she wouldn’t buy me a real one because I wasn’t on the squad.

Despite this handicap I practiced my heart out, twirling the hell out of that thing. My Mom would yell at me that I was going to break something but I still practiced. And you know what? I made the squad.

This wasn’t a huge prestige thing. It seemed to me we were all the misfits, the rejects. But were were so proud of ourselves. Even though people would walk right through our routines on the court, and not even show us common courtesy, we were very happy with ourselves. And we really did like twirling batons. For someone as uncoordinated as me, it was amazing to physically master something.

When it came time to try out for the high school squad, I didn’t hesitate. This, however, was a whole different ball game. Suddenly being a cute, popular girl mattered. We had to learn a dance routine as well. I practiced and practiced and practiced. But I did not make the cut. It was clearly a popularity contest, so how could I?

Despite the odds being totally against me, I was still stunned and devastated when I didn’t make it. It was the first time I had failed at something. And not only that: it was clear that I had failed at being a Real Girl. I couldn’t stop crying. I cried for days and days. I remember being on errands with my Mom and I kept turning my head away so she couldn’t see that I was crying. For reasons I’ve never understood, crying made my Mom angry. I was sent to my room for crying.

Not being a Real Girl meant I would have no friends, never mind boyfriends. That’s how it was for my first two years in high school. I would go days without speaking to anyone. I finally met some girl who was in the same boat as me. We found each other because we had both developed the habit of eating our lunches hunkered down in a corner of the hallway. We didn’t dare go to the lunchroom and sit alone.

I didn’t become real friends with her; I don’t even remember her name and we never saw each other outside of school. Through her I met a few other girls, all of us painfully shy, and our social interactions were brief gatherings in the hallways. I hung out with these girls for the remainder of my junior year, at about which time I started becoming friends with Irene.

Now that I see the source for this reaction, I’m hoping that its power has been diminished and will not plague me anymore.

This is it. I don’t want to wait any more. This is the year I learn to fly.

I guess I’ve done some forms of flying before. I was a student of flying trapeze for eight years, so I was actually called a “flyer”. This kind of flying has all the things one would want associated with that verb: thrills, excitement, moments of weightlessness, and a manageable sense of danger.

The other kind flying I’ve had is in lucid dreams, which I’ve written about here on The Nerge. Those experiences have run the gamut from mundane to breathtaking. Even in the mundane scenarios, it’ll quite amazing to be weightless and moving through space without any danger.

The flying I’m talking about here is flying an airplane. I’ve been wanting to taking flying lessons for about 15 years. The cost and the lack of time have been obstacles, either or both, at any given moment. I’ve decided that I’m just going to have to make time and find the money to do it. I imagine if I take just one lesson a month I can squeeze it in. That may mean it takes me ten years to get my license, but what do I care? In the meantime I’ll be flying a plane once a month, which is infinitely more than now when I fly a plane 0% of the time.

K’s grandmother flew her own plane for many years. She was a ballet instructor and would fly to remote places in the South to give lessons. She talked about it with me and how much she loved flying. She is certainly an inspiration for me.

In preparation for this, I have joined AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), who sends me newsletters full of jargon I can barely comprehend. Being a nerd, this excites me quite a bit. Flying is fucking complicated, it’s going to be mentally challenging — bring it on!

I heard about AOPA through a cousin of mine whom I spoke to at the family event I just posted about. He flew to the wedding in his own plane, accompanied by his wife, sister, and brother-in-law. He and his sister learned to fly when they were young, but apparently only he has kept up with it. I remember as a teenager hearing that they had their own planes. How glamorous that seemed! Of course, they were much wealthier than us so they could have these things. In my young mind, I pictured airplanes parked in their driveway like cars.

I have barely ever spoken to this cousin, but I approached him and told him that I was interested in becoming a pilot. He handed me his phone and told me to type in my email address and that he’d send me information. He gave me a few tips right there, and I thought, well this is fine but I don’t think he’ll actually remember to email me.

He emailed me the next day with the names of potential instructors, airfields, and organizations I should look into. Then he emailed me again with more information. My opinion of this cousin went WAY up. People who keep their word count a lot in my world.

So, once my schedule isn’t so full of work, I’m going to follow up on this information and get going on lessons. In the meantime, I’ll read my newsletters about virga and crosswinds and dream of being in the cockpit.

I’m in New York for my cousin’s wedding. I was nervous about coming to a family event, which has be stressful and trying in the past. I’ve noticed that has been changing in the last few years. The biggest difference is now the next generation are young adults. They’ve grown up with me and accept me as I am in a way my generation, and more so the older generation cannot, because of their ideas of who I should be. This is incredibly liberating.

It turns out my Great Aunt S. is buried not from from the hotel I’m staying in. I was very close to her. I used to always hang out with her at these family events, so since she’s gone, they’ve were less fun for several years. My cousin D. drove me to the cemetery to see her, which was closed for shabbat. We went in anyway. It was strange to see her grave, and I didn’t expect to, but I cried. Also near her is buried my Uncle Abey who died when I was 14. He was a lot of fun, I remember him very well, and I had no idea it was the same cemetery and I had been there before. All of this was not fun but was that kind of thing that touches a part of me inside, a part that says, this is real, this is important.

Soon after that my brother & family showed up with my Mom and Stepdad. Of course, I’m always happy to be with my awesome Stepdad but the treat was my nieces. They are really different now, as young adults and not kids or teens, and really want to hang out with me. This wasn’t always true, and certainly wasn’t when they were awkward middle school kids. They are 18 and 22 and both gorgeous too. I had a great conversation with E. (22) who is thinking of being a field scientist. She just spent some time in the last few weeks in North Carolina trapping and taking data on alligators.

We all went out for a family dinner, the first cousins and offspring, and afterwards I joined my stepdad for a Manhattan at the hotel. He told bad jokes and tales of his various adventures. My Mom was actually convinced to have a drink and then she was kind of fun. I wish she’d drink more. A lot more.

Then my nieces and I went to the pool. It was about 9:30 at night. Some guys were gawking at them through the glass door. C.’s suit is very skimpy and she is very curvaceous, so there was a lot to see. Suddenly E. went to the door, opened it and said, “DO YOU WANT TO COME IN?”. Man, did that scare them off. I was impressed with her cleverness.

So, there’s a new dimension to the family thing which is, as long as my nieces are around, it’s a pretty good time.

People often say things at these events about “The Family” and “How we are” and sometimes “How us Jews are” and I think, you people don’t know. I am nothing like you. I can barely relate to you. I relate the best to my non-Jewish nieces and my Irish stepdad. How is that, when I am so Jewish? When Jewishness is so important to me?

I’ve been back in the U.S. long enough to readjust to my home environment. I’ve gotten used to some of the niceties of home. The spaciousness of things is a big one. The fact that I live on a city, but still on a wide tree-lined street, is very pleasant and something that doesn’t exist in Japan.

The human interactions in the U.S., especially with strangers, still is a source of stress because it’s so unpredictable. People can be friendly, hostile, funny, bitter — you have no idea what you’ll get. I notice that I, and quite a few people I know, dispel the uncertainty with humor. But even though everyone is not going to be kind a pleasant as in Japan, sometimes you have an interaction that is so creative and funny that it’s notable and memorable. This fits into the concept that in a country where everything is pleasant and calm, creativity takes a hit.

I have noticed that the calmness I felt in Japan is still with me. All that sitting in temples and visiting fox shrines has had a lingering effect. I feel less agitated in situations that usually send me through the roof. When I start to become tense, I tell myself it’s no big deal, take a deep breath, and think of Nishi Hongaji or Fushimi-inari. I seem to be able to release the tension in my body much more easily than I could before Japan. I hope this ability will remain withe me.

I don’t know how I forgot these in my previous lists of Things I’ll Miss About Japan, since they were very important to me when I was there, but here they are:

NO GARBAGE. It was just amazing to not see garbage. There were no garbage cans either, or practically none. Basically, everyone was responsible for their garbage. You carried it with you until you were home or work or somewhere that had a garbage can. The Shinkansen platforms had garbage cans, which makes sense, since people could be on those trains all day and have a lot of plastic bento boxes and such. There were none in the spotlessly clean public bathroom, because there were no paper towels. You brought your own hand towel where ever you went.

We came home to find someone had dumped a broken old desk and sundry other crap in front of our house. There is not the Japanese way. No one would dump a pile of garbage in public, especially not on someone else’s property. It sucked to come home to.

The other things I miss: cutefied public service announcement. All public service announcement had cute drawings. ALL OF THEM. It seemed weird at first, but then I got used to them, and then I kind of liked them. At the last day of my trip, I saw a drawing of a crying garbage can (where was the real one? I don’t even know). It was crying because the garbage was overflowing and falling on the ground. This made the garbage can so sad. Poor garbage can! Then I saw one of a crying handbag. It looked wistfully at its departing owner, who had left it behind in the bicycle basket (yes, people actually do that. And, people do not lock their bikes, either). A black-gloved thief was just about to snatch it, and it would never see it’s owner again. Poor handbag!

I also saying angry mountains, crying deer (being chased by people with sticks), helpful chipmunks with fire extinguishers, the aforementioned smiling body organs, and this: THE ULTIMATE JAPANESE PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:

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Sadly, it’s our last day here. We aren’t doing much, just trying to take it easy and rest up for our trip home.

It’s another beautiful, warm, Bay-Area-like day, so I put on the thigh-high socks I bought, only to discover that on me they are knee-highs. It’s true, most Japanese women are shorter than me, but so are most American women. I guess I’m just especially long-legged, at least from the ankle to the knee, compared to the Japanese. In any case, it’s a thigh-high fail but I’m wearing them anyway.

So, here are some of the things I’ll miss about Japan.

I’ll miss the gentleness of the public venue. I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors here, but when you are in public, politeness and kindness is the rule, and the Japanese tend to abide by rules more than Americans do. I only heard a person shout in anger once the entire time I was here, a drunk man on a bike who felt another bicycle had gotten too close to him. At home, I hear angry shouting all day long. Some people are shouting at the voices in their head. Some of them are shouting at others. On the bus, people are shouting into their phones. People are loud in America.

Also: everyone treating me kindly, everyone respecting each other’s private space, everyone being quiet on the bus and the train — I’ll really miss these things. I felt calm and at ease when I was in public, instead of the guarded, anxious, annoyed triad I’m usually wallowing in.

I only saw two homeless people, and one small encampment near the river during this trip. Is it because the homeless are more hidden, or is it that they barely exist, or a combination of the two?

If we saw a piece of garbage on the ground, or graffiti, we pointed at it in astonishment. The apparent care of the people and public space — I’ll miss that.

It may seem silly, but I’ll miss the fact that I almost never had to sit on a cold toilet sit for three weeks. I got used to expecting a warm seat. And using the Japanese (in ground) toilet really wasn’t bad at all. I got used to it, and it made sense after a while.

My awesome shower in my ryokan, with three settings: “rain”, massage shower head, and jets.

I’ll miss the group of friendly guys who were the staff of Capsule Ryokan.

The variety of colors that men wore, when not in their business suits. And the colorful bicycles, pink and yellow and purple. To see men in business suits on these bicycles seemed so not American.

The way that nature is left alone up in the hills and mountains even though space is at a premium.

The Shinkasen, which is as close to perfect as transportation can get.

The little chimes that announce when a train or bus is coming, or that a stop is coming when you are on board.

Seeing little children out on their own in the city. Also apparently once children are in middle school, they seem to be on their own which is kind of amazing. They travel in groups, unchaperoned. The independence given to children was amazing to witness.

Wild monkeys and deer that you can feed.

Okonomaki.

Nishi hongaji temple across the street.

Sakura season. As we are leaving, the dogwoods are in bloom and they are very pretty. But there really isn’t anything like cherry blossoms in Japan.

Fushimi-inari.

And mostly, fox shrines.

This is my last transmission from Japan. California, here I come.

I noticed on my “trekking” map that there was an image of a gorge to the west of Kyoto that looked pretty good, so I decided that I wanted to go see it. At first K squared were not interested, especially when I mentioned the bus to the beginning of the hike would take 50 minutes. Then I noticed there was a different, less rigorous route that we could possible reach by train, and they decided they wanted to join me.

We took the train to Hozukyo, and to our delight, the train station is actually on a bridge over the gorge. It just dumps you out right there, in the middle of this beautiful natural scenery. It was pretty amazing, especially since it was just one stop past Arashiyama.

We exited the station and the first thing K noticed was that there were these incredibly GIANT BEES. K has a phobia of bees, which I understand, since I have a phobia of spiders. These bees were by far the largest I’d ever seen. They were about the length of a thumb, from the tip down to the first knuckle, and just as fat. They also seemed to like to hover right in front of your face, as if they’re having a staring contest with you. So even if you weren’t afraid of bees, they were a little freaky.

We started headed towards the trail and the bees were still around us. K decided he couldn’t go on the hike. I thought the bees would diminish as we got away from the station and into the woods, but he was having none of it. I can’t blame him; if I tried to go on a hike and there were many tarantulas, I’d have to give up too.

W and I continued on. It was uphill for a long time. The river was incredibly clean. You could see right down to the bottom, even from where we were, a good 100 feet up. At some point we were more like 40 feet up, and I could see that the river had flooded considerably sometime in the not-to-distant past, as there was debris in the the lower parts of the trees up to about 20 feet above the current surface of the water. Kyoto has a bit of a monsoon season in June so I wonder if that debris was from last June.

We passed a group of hikers, all retirees. It was, after all, a weekday. The hill was steep but they were undeterred.

The entire “Kyoto Trail” in this section ias a road. The area was very pristine, but it was strange to be hiking on a narrow, one lane road with occasional traffic. Fortunately, the vehicles in Japan – even the trucks – are small and they were able to breeze by with no trouble.

It was a beautiful, sunny, warm spring day. The weather was incredibly like the Bay Area, the first day that felt like that. Even the color of the sky almost resembled the color of the sky in Oakland but… not quite as vibrant.

Before too long we came to the top of the hill and headed down through a cedar forest, which was a good change of pace as we were getting pretty warm.

The terrain eventually flattened out and then the nature became interspersed with an occasional restaurant or shrine, and then more and more until we were in an historic neighborhood. Then there were many temples, which I wasn’t too interested in, but W wanted to go to Gioji so we looked for that one. On the way we came across yet another fox (inari) shrine, this one looking spooky and abandoned. There was even a tiny door behind the shrine to the right that was propped open and let to some sort of cellar. It was pitch black in there, and neither W or I wanted to go in. I just figured I wasn’t supposed to.

The Gioji Temple was very small, but interesting. The garden, instead of a cultivating flowers, cultivated moss. They had a display showing the 14 kinds of moss in the garden, and the entire grounds were covered with this lovely carpet shaded by maple trees. Apparently in the fall when the leaves are red it’s quite a sight, but it was striking when we saw it as well. This temple was at one point a women’s convent, so were were some small statues of women inside.

After that we made our way back to the train station, and home — at least our for just another day or so.

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