We tend to think of ourselves as the smartest animals on earth. After all, we've built such technological wonders as the Internet, the internal combustion engine and sneakers that light up when you take a step. But despite our big, juicy frontal lobe, many of us still forget to pick up the kids after practice due to our inferior memory, one area where a whole bunch of animals leave us in the dust. For instance ...
Try this quick test:
Glance at the image below for two seconds only. Don't cheat. Then cover it with your hand and remember exactly where each digit was, in order.
DON'T GET DISTRACTED! FUCK! BALLS! HITLER!
Can't do it? Congratulations, you just got your ass handed to you by a chimp.
In a Kyoto University study, a bunch of chimps were taught to count from one to nine, which is impressive enough already, but then each of the subjects was shown some randomly scattered numbers on a computer screen. The numbers were then covered and the subjects were required to identify the position of each number in order (putting us at Cracked at a distinct disadvantage due to our crippling inability to list numbers in any order but descending).
How did they do? Startlingly well, as the quite frankly insane video proves:
Scientists attribute this impressive display of working memory to "eidetic imagery," or what is commonly known as photographic memory. You've probably heard that term in reference to people who remember every little thing that's ever happened to them, but in this case it just means the chimps seem to have a really good visual memory -- they can remember details of an image even if they just glimpsed it for a couple of seconds.
"I swear to God, man, I thought that stall was unoccupied."
And more amazingly, their performance did not decrease when the time spent looking at the image was shortened -- the chimps were memorizing all of the numbers almost instantaneously. Meanwhile, human subjects who were given the same test exhibited a steep decline in performance with the decrease in memorization time, an infraction that no doubt earned them a severe beating from their chimp overlords.
Quick, what is your most lucid memory from exactly 10 years ago? Let's rephrase that -- what is your most lucid memory unrelated to that whole twin towers thing? Do you think you could remember the details of a card trick your uncle taught you, assuming you never saw or performed that card trick again between then and now? If not, then you just got outdone by a sea lion.
"That's your card. Fucking idiot."
Categorized by scientists as the cutest kind of lion, the sea lion is usually thought of as a lovable attention whore that will do just about anything for a couple of raw fish. But while trainers have spent years teaching sea lions cheap parlor tricks, they have also discovered that these creatures have an amazing long-term memory, which will be exploited in order to teach them more cheap parlor tricks.
Lars K. Jensen
Sea lions: Whores of the ocean.
Scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz were able to teach a sea lion named Rio the concept of "sameness" by showing Rio a symbol and then showing her one card with the same symbol and one with a different one. If she correctly identified the same symbol, she was rewarded with a fish, which she would eat with all the tear-filled shame you would expect from a sea lion that's given up her last shred of dignity. This level of advanced cognitive functioning is impressive in itself, but Rio's biggest feat would come a decade later.
Her name is Rio and she flops across the sand ...
After 10 freaking years, Rio was given a similar test, only this time it used numbers and letters instead of symbols. She was able to identify the numbers and letters that were the same, despite the fact that she had not performed the trick again at any point in the last decade. This is the longest known retention period of any animal species, and is all the more impressive due to the 25-year lifespan of the sea lion. We'll see how well you remember the things you learned at 30 when you turn 70.
"It was something about alcohol and brain cells. Probably not important."
Scientists believe that this memory serves to help sea lions identify prey that they may only encounter once every few years. Or to help the sea lion exact horrible revenge on its slave masters many years after the fact.
Here's a question for all you parents, babysitters and camp counselors: How many infants can you keep track of at any one time? Anyone who has spent time dealing with children knows that if you stop watching for 10 seconds, they'll be running around in traffic, making friends with savage animals and lining up to take candy from strangers.
If you're a human being, the answer is probably around three or four. If you're an elephant, it's more in the area of 30. Way to go, supermom!
"I swear to God, Dumbo, you are not my favorite."
Elephants can keep track of the whereabouts of up to 30 family members, regardless of their distance or direction. They accomplish this incredible task by creating a mental map that locates the position of each family member, even if some are separated from the rest of the pachydermal pack. How do they do this? Through their astounding ability to track and catalogue elephant pee.
If it wasn't for that, elephants would go missing constantly.
Whenever they encounter the scent of another elephant's urine, an elephant can record in its computerish brain the location and direction of the pisser. This enables them to devote a sizable portion of their working memory to maintaining these expansive mental maps.
The only thing we can detect is the lingering aroma of asparagus.
To test this, scientists gathered urine samples from other elephants and presented them to their relatives. When the samples were from elephants who were far away, or had not yet passed by the area, the elephants reacted with surprise. We're not sure how the scientists detected "surprise" in elephants, but we trust their judgment.
How would you like to be able to turbocharge your memory at will? College would have been much better if we'd been able to spend every lecture at the local bar and just flip through the textbook before the exam. It's possible, if you're an octopus. Also possible if you're an octopus: Playing four tiny violins at once.
The octopus is a notoriously sarcastic creature.
But it's the memory thing we're talking about here. Unlike other invertebrates, the octopus has a developed short-term memory and long-term memory, collectively powered by half a billion neurons. Its closest mollusk relatives, for comparison, have around 20,000. So already they're pretty remarkable, in that their memory works more like ours than a lobster's.
They don't have the lobster's excellent song writing and conducting skills, however.
But while humans also possess a complex short- and long-term memory, the octopus is unique because its short-term memory is directly attached to its long-term memory. This means that in times of high stress, where learning quickly could mean survival, the short-term memory can be substantially enhanced by the long-term memory center, transforming the octopus from lumbering beast into shifty genius. It's like the Incredible Hulk in reverse.
"Note to self: Don't trust humans."
Imagine being able to ratchet up your memory under pressure. You could be the world's greatest detective, or a real-life Dr. House with an amazing recollection of obscure medical disorders. Instead this power is going to waste on lame octopus stuff, like performing extremely complex one-man puppet shows.
Have you ever walked into a room and realized you can't remember what you were going to do there? Ever put your keys down and instantly forget where you put them? Get distracted in a conversation and forget what your point was? That kind of thing never happens to cats, thanks to an almost supernatural capacity for short-term memory.
"Don't worry, Frank, I'm gonna eat your mate, but I guarantee his memory will live longer in me."
As we touched on above, your memory -- and that of animals -- is divided into two components: short term and long term. Whatever you're doing right now is always bouncing around in your short-term memory, which is constantly transcribing stuff into your long-term memory. If you get distracted at that crucial moment, then the data might not actually carry over, and everything in your short-term memory gets overwritten and lost, along with the location of your wallet. In a human being, your short-term memory lasts a brief 30 seconds or so.
In cats, it lasts at least 10 minutes.
"Long enough to cut your pretty face."
Scientists discovered this when they ran some simple tests in which they would get a cat to half-step over an obstacle and then quickly distract the shit out of it, likely by dangling car keys in front of its face. They recorded the amount of time that they had to distract it for before the cat lost track of what it was supposed to be doing in the first place. They realized, astoundingly, that the kitty retained its short-term memory 10 to 20 times longer than most other animals.
Hahaha, kitty, we have no idea what we're supposed to be doing right now.
For comparison, dangle your keys in front of your spouse's face while they're trying to concentrate on something, and they're likely to become confused and irritable in a matter of seconds. Try it.
Quick, tell us the location of every coin on your property right now, including the ones resting between sofa cushions and on the floorboard of your car. Tell us exactly how many paper clips you own, and where they are right this moment. Hell, do you even know where your shoes are?
Because you wouldn't catch a certain bird called the Clark's nutcracker forgetting any of that.
His shoes are in the hall closet.
With a name like the Clark's nutcracker, you know at least two things are true -- the bird cracks a lot of nuts, and some guy named Clark wanted to get in on that. But what this bird lacks in a decent, non-candy-bar name it more than makes up for with its amazing memory. While other animals can make you look stupid by remembering nine digits or 30 family members, this unassuming little bird is able to remember the exact location of up to 30,000 pine nuts.
Or one for each person in this stadium.
The bird spends the fall gathering pine nuts and just hiding them around the damn place like an unsupervised toddler. Later, in the winter, when everything is blanketed by a thick layer of snow, it digs them up again to keep itself alive over the long months.
The Clark's nutcracker is able to accomplish this winter gorging through the use of a sophisticated spatial memory, which allows it to recall landmarks, such as trees, to pinpoint the locations of several thousand caches in a 15-mile area. This means they not only have a better memory than you, but they're also much less lazy than you.
Thankfully they're more fluffy and squishy, too, so they will never rise up against us.
And if that's not enough, the Clark's nutcracker's hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with spatial memory, continues to produce neurons into adulthood. So while your memory just fades with age, the bird's is just getting better.
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For more ways animals outshine us, check out 6 Modern Technologies Animals Invented Millions of Years Ago and 7 Real Insect Superpowers That Put Spidey Sense to Shame.