Pigeons are better than people at multitasking

"Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience have been wondering for a long time how it was possible that some birds, such as crows or parrots, are smart enough to rival chimpanzees," said researcher Sara Letzner.
By Brooks Hays  |  Sept. 26, 2017 at 2:53 PM
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Sept. 26 (UPI) -- Despite our gadgets and flexible attention spans, humans still haven't bested the multitasking abilities of pigeons.

According to a new study published this week in the journal Current Biology, pigeons are able to switch their attention from one task to another as efficiently -- and sometimes more efficiently -- than people.

Researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum, in Germany, believe the birds' higher neuronal density accounts for their multitasking advantage.

"For a long time, scientists used to believe the mammalian cerebral cortex to be the anatomical cause of cognitive ability; it is made up of six cortical layers," RUB biologist Sara Letzner said in a news release.

Birds don't have a layered cerebral cortex, yet they are still able to multitask.

"That means the structure of the mammalian cortex cannot be decisive for complex cognitive functions such as multitasking," Letzner said.

Birds' neurons are more densely packed than those organized among the layers of a mammalian cerebral cortex. Pigeons haves six times more nerve cells per cubic millimeter of brain tissue. Thus, the gaps between neurons in the pigeon brain are significantly shorter than those found in the human brain.

Scientists hypothesized that the shorter gaps would allow birds to relay information more quickly. To test the prediction, they subjected 12 pigeons and 15 humans to a series of multitasking exercises. In one test, participants were asked to switch from one task immediately to another with no delay. In another test, participants switched between tasks with a 300-millisecond delay.

The first tests trigger true multitasking. During the immediate transition, the brain is simultaneously processing two tasks -- the task of ceasing focus on one exercise and the task of refocusing on another. The second test triggers a ping pong-like phenomenon of back-and-forth brain signaling.

Pigeons and humans were equally fast at executing the switch during the first test, but birds were faster at switching tasks during the second tests -- just as scientists had hypothesized.

"Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience have been wondering for a long time how it was possible that some birds, such as crows or parrots, are smart enough to rival chimpanzees in terms of cognitive abilities, despite their small brains and their lack of a cortex," said Letzner.

The latest research proves birds have an advantage when cognitive tasks require rapid-fire interaction between different sets of neurons.

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