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Biology, Psychology, Uncategorized

Pigeons are better at multitasking

I feel like these days people claim their ability to multitask as a badge of honour. Eventually, it will degrade to a playground quality fight: “Yeah, well I have ten different windows open on my computer and I’m simultaneously leading a meeting while attending a webinar that is vital to my field.” When I am constantly switching between tasks I wonder how effective I am actually being.

It turns out that a pigeon can be just as effective if not more so. If we switch between two tasks without any break in between human brains and pigeon brains have the exact same delay but if there is a very short delay between switching tasks (300 ms, or 0.3 s) the birds do better (0.25 s faster). So how do birds do it? Well, despite all the disadvantages that we think we see in bird brains like the lack of a cerebral cortex they have been demonstrating very difficult cognitive tasks such as abstract numbers that is comparable to some primates. The other thing is that, from what we can tell, all neurons whether bird or mammal transit signals at the same rate, so how are the birds faster? Bird neurons are packed more tightly compared to mammalian ones (including humans). Letzner et al (2017) came to the conclusion then that because bird brains are so small, the neurons have to be packed closer together, which, in turn, increases the rate of transmission under specific conditions.

On the one hand, the ability to multitask to at least some level seems like a sensible adaptation. If I’m by myself I do need to be able to switch between two tasks (such as foraging for food and watching for dangers) pretty seamlessly. But the way we wear this multitasking with pride in much of society is perhaps a cause for concern.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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