by Tom Morris
It has long been said that abstraction, the ability to imagine things as they may be in the future and how they are to other people, is a trait only available to humans and animals of close relation such as chimpanzees. It has now emerged thanks to new research at the University of Vienna that ravens can imagine being spied on – and therefore may well have this trait previously thought to be a human exclusive.
More specifically, the experiment showed that ravens may have ‘theory of mind,’ which is often what people refer to when they talk about the subconscious. It is the ability to attribute mental states including beliefs, intents and desires in others as well as understanding that they may differ from one’s own. In humans, deficits of theory of mind are seen in people with autism, and alcoholics with brain damage.
The study was published by Thomas Bugnyar, Stephen A. Reber and Cameron Buckner in the scientific journal Nature late last year. It is the latest in a long history of research that focuses on the birds, which are known to be particularly smart for such a small bird-brain.
In the experiment, ravens were given the option to take a piece of food, which was placed in their box in front of a window to another box. The birds were taught that a rival raven could be watching them through the window – even if it was closed, as a peephole was also provided. When the window was fully open, and a rival raven could be seen on the other side, the birds were reluctant to take the food- foreseeing that it could lead to a feathery tussle.
Sometimes there would not be a bird on the other side, but a recording of raven noises being played from a speaker. This seemed to make the birds think that there was a rival there but that it was not worth worrying about as the rival probably could not see it. Knowing that the observing bird was looking at the original bird is known as a ‘gaze cue.’ The ravens were also seemingly able to visualise which parts of their box were blind spots from the observing raven’s point of view, and hide the food in those areas.
Ravens have been shown to be very clever in previous experiments, where they are able to imagine the social dynamics of groups other than their own, with young ravens having power struggles and deciding who to pick on much like human teenagers. Later on in life, the ravens enter into long term committed relationships, similarly to human adults.