When we look at the natural world around us, it’s hard not to be astounded by the beautiful diversity of life. From the smallest mushrooms to the tallest trees, from massive ocean predators to domestic house cats, Nature never ceases to surprise and amaze.
As the self-proclaimed “most advanced beings” on the planets, humans have become very comfortable thinking of themselves as superior in almost every way – particularly when it comes to intelligence.
However, ever we are mystified by certain aspects of our consciousness, particularly memory, its strength, longevity, and weaknesses. Obviously, this has led us to muse on the memory capacities of animals, to see if we may learn something more about ourselves. Simply put, do animals have the same powers of memory as humans, especially in terms of working memory?
What is Working Memory?
Before we can dig into the memory powers of animals, we first need to understand the differences between various types of memory. For example, humans possess short-term, long-term, and working memory, which are distinctly different things. Long-term memory and short-term memory are both “storage” spaces, so to speak, but short-term memory is limited by temporal decay and total chunk capacity (a “chunk” being a certain group of data).
Working memory, however, fits somewhere in between, and is defined in a number of ways by most researchers. Depending on who you listen to, working memory is either the application of short-term memory to a cognitive task, the use of attention to manipulate your short-term memory, or a more complex arrangement of functions that can hold and manipulate the short-term memory. That may sound like a lot of scientific jargon, but the finer details of working memory have been debated by researchers for decades – if not longer in one form or another.
Working memory allows human beings to learn things like math and science, by combining visual and auditory sensory input into usable information. For example, listening to a world problem being read aloud by a teacher requires hearing and holding the numbers, paying attention to key words in the story to determine what calculations to make, and then manipulating those numbers into a mathematical equation. That intake, storage, understanding, and application of knowledge is the essential role of working memory – a tool to boost our software (short-term memory).
That being said, working memory has significant effects on our long-term memory, as repetitive use of our working memory causes new neural pathways to be formed, eventually moving certain skills into our long-term memory, to the point where it almost becomes second nature to us. In this regard, working memory is also crucial in learning to read, paying attention, following directions, speaking different languages and remembering passwords.
Clearly, working memory is the foundation of what separates humans from animals, which has led us to things like language, self-dialogue, self-awareness, and other crucial divergent points between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.
However, does that mean animals don’t have a working memory?
The Mysterious Working Memory of Animals
The debate over the working memory capacities of animals is heated and divided, to say the least.
At one extreme, there is the opinion of some that animals possess no working memory, and instead only have short-term memory, like humans, that lasts for a few seconds, and cannot exceed one or two “chunks” of information.
At the other extreme, some studies suggest that animals possess a working memory that is almost identical to humans, only lacking the most complex functions that humans have developed thanks to our linguistic abilities, inner speech, and self-awareness.
Obviously, there is a huge difference in those opinions, but hundreds of legitimate research studies have reached these conclusions, as well as many possible points between those extremes. In certain “lower” species, cognitively speaking, there appears to be a limited capacity for chunks, while others struggle with interference (they’re easily distracted) and thus fail to hold onto short-term memories for a usable span of time. Some animals seem to possess some form of working memory, but don’t show any imagination to apply short-term memory to functional or cognitive tasks.
Perhaps you can see the difficulty in this research; whereas humans possess a seemingly “perfect” set of skills that allow us to absorb, store, manipulate, and subsequently apply our memory to a wide range of simultaneous tasks, in other species further back in evolutionary history, some of those elements are missing or underdeveloped.
Therefore, it makes sense that primates, our closest relatives, as well as many other advanced mammalian species, show the most impressive examples of working memory. They have pure retention abilities that, in some cases, rival or surpass human beings. While humans are far from unique in terms of future planning and task-independent memory, we do seem superior when it comes to avoiding distractions using rehearsal and repetition to extend working memory and consistently achieve tasks.
In answer to the original question, animals do display a wide spectrum of working memory processes, depending on species, age, living conditions, distraction levels, and task needs.
Animal species creating complex language and developing self-awareness isn’t likely to occur anytime soon, but there is more going on inside their brains than meets the eye. Next time you see a chimpanzee disarming a trap, a bird digging up food buried months ago, or an elephant carefully monitoring every member of its herd, remember that the memory powers of animals and humans aren’t so different after all!