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.”

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.