Are animals stuck in time?

April 3, 2008

Dog owners, who have noticed that their four-legged friend seem equally delighted to see them after five minutes away as five hours, may wonder if animals can tell when time passes. Newly published research from The University of Western Ontario in London, Canada may bring us closer to answering that very question.

The results of the research, entitled “Episodic-Like Memory in Rats: Is it Based on When or How Long Ago,” appear in the current issue of the journal Science, which was released today.

William Roberts and his colleagues in Western’s Psychology Department found that rats are able to keep track of how much time has passed since they discovered a piece of cheese, be it a little or a lot, but they don’t actually form memories of when the discovery occurred. That is, the rats can’t place the memories in time.

The research team, led by Roberts, designed an experiment in which rats visited the ‘arms’ of a maze at different times of day. Some arms contained moderately desirable food pellets, and one arm contained a highly desirable piece of cheese. Rats were later returned to the maze with the cheese removed on certain trials and with the cheese replaced with a pellet on others.

Three groups of rats were tested in the research using three varying cues: when, how long ago or when plus how long ago.

Only the cue of "how long ago food was encountered" was used successfully by the rats.

These results, the researchers say, suggest that episodic-like memory in rats is qualitatively different from human episodic memory, which involves retention of the point in past time when an event occurred.

“The rats remember whether they did something, such as hoarded food a few hours or five days ago,” explained Roberts. “The more time that has passed, the weaker the memory may be. Rats may learn to follow different courses of action using weak and strong memory traces as cues, thus responding differently depending on how long ago an event occurred. However, they do not remember that the event occurred at a specific point in past time.”

Previous studies have suggested that rats and scrub jays (a relative of the crow and the blue jay) appear to remember storing or discovering various foods, but it hasn’t been clear whether the animals were remembering exactly when these events happened or how much time had elapsed.

“This research,” said Roberts, “supports the theory I introduced that animals are stuck in time, with no sense of time extending into the past or future.”

Source: University of Western Ontario

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4 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2008
Quite right. My dog too knows full well the difference between a short separation and a long one, and similarly makes her feelings known.
The research was done on rats but the intro makes claims about dogs - who wrote that bit? I doubt it was the researchers. This is typical of the sensationalising of scientific work that goes on in the popular press, but it's out of place here.
2 / 5 (7) Apr 04, 2008
Always, the human hubris of thinking we are unique and superior to the other species. Just the other day I saw a video of an elephant painting a well drafted portrait of another elephant. http://video.msn....kt=en-us&vid=840d3b2c-9379-4649-85d0-445d4dc1fbde&fg=rss&from=im_default
When we are ready to accept other species as our equals, then we will evolve into 'superior' beings. Perhaps we can even hope to be as enlightened as the rest of life...
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2008
I think animals have a beter sense of time than humans. I would guess our conscious mind blocks out the animal instinct of time.
Pets will often know the precise time each day that they usually get taken for a walk, get fed etc etc (If done at a regular time)
4.3 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2008
My cat is always there right before the alarm goes off in the morning, and even adjusts quickly to daylight savings. It's an interesting phenomenon.
3 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2008
Interesting discussion But i do think there is a difference between a conditioned daily response and asking an animal to recall what time yesterday that event occurred.

and Arigod animals are my equal the day they can build skyscrapers and write tragedies. There may be striking similarities but something makes humans very distinct from all other animals. I however, am not sure what that is.
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2008
I see the definition of time being distorted here. Of course a dog can't know what "time" it was fed the day before. I believe it can associate and remember the events that were taking place during it's feeding. It might not be able to tell you it was fed at 12:15 pm, but I bet it associated that the sun was shining on a certain area of carpet, and it's owner was watching daytime TV. I would assume that a house pet of the such would particularly pay attention to little details like that, seeing as how their life depends on their owner feeding them. There was an interesting show on NatGeo channel called "dog genius", very interesting. I believe we underestimate the animal intelligence sometimes.
3.3 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2008
Time (as layfolk think of it) is a wholly human-created tool used to measure change. For obvious reasons non-human animals will not be able to recall a moment in time because there is nothing specific to remember (like 3:04pm.) Humans have all kinds of related and specific tools to remember exact moments of time, because we invented them to do just that.

Because we measure change using time, all time is related to change. Days, weeks, months...are all relative to change (like earth revolving around the sun and rotating on its axis.) These would all become "inaccurate" if the constant change were to suddenly accelerate or decelerate. If the earth were to accelerate around the sun, we'd have to "recalibrate" all of our time pieces to make sense of them.

As for dogs, studies have shown that it's not the time of day the reminds dogs of regular activity, but the actions of their owners that remind them. Remember Pavlov?

I can go on, but I won't.
not rated yet Apr 04, 2008
Oh, and a follow-up. For those who say that modern time has nothing to do with the sun/moon, and a second is "the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom" you're right.

But you're still just measuring the change of the caesium 133 atom, albeit far more precisely than we have in the past.

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