Professor Nicola Clayton on brainy birds and dance

Combining creativity in science and dance Image credit: nickyclayton22

Professor Nicola Clayton studies the learning and memory of animals, in particular members of the crow family (corvids), which exhibit highly intelligent behaviours such as tool use and the ability to complete complex tasks. Professor Clayton is also a dancer, and has integrated her love of tango with science by becoming the first ever Scientist in Residence of the prestigious dance company Rambert, a position she has held since May 2011. Professor Nicola Clayton is a Fellow of Clare College and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

How did you come to be interested in animal behaviour?

“Since the age of two I was fascinated by birds, and I’ve always wanted to fly. When I went to Oxford University, I would have loved to have read a joint degree in zoology and psychology, but as this wasn’t possible, on the advice of John Krebs who told me that there would be lots of bird projects in zoology, I chose zoology. I then did a PhD on birdsong learning.”

Which scientists have most influenced your work?

Two people come to mind. One person who has enormously influenced me is Niko Tinbergen, because I think that his elegant and simple animal behaviour experimental designs are fantastic. I love the fact that he was really about thinking about how to design an experiment cleverly and with minimal amount of extra faff and gadgets, and that is what I love about his work.

The other person who has enormously influenced my work is Bill Thorpe, who said many insightful things about the minds of birds. There is one quote that I love from his book  “Learning and Instinct in Animals” - “the poor development of birds in any brain structures clearly corresponding to the cerebral cortex of mammals, led to the assumption among neurologists that not only are birds primarily creatures of instinct, but also they’re very little endowed with the ability to learn. There is no doubt that this preconceived notion based on a misconceived view of brain mechanisms hindered the development of experimental studies on bird learning.” This was written in the 1950s, and it was just so ahead of its time, for now it is common knowledge that birds have a cortex, yet but it’s important to acknowledge that it this wasn’t the accepted doctrine at the time. In those days animal behaviourists were very focused on the ‘is it nature or nurture’ debate and assumed birds did not have a cortex. 

You mention that you admire Thorpe’s insight into people’s preconceptions concerning the cognitive abilities of birds, what has your research found that should make us challenge our assumption about non-humans?

“In a paper published in ‘Science’ with my husband, Nathan EmoryEmery, we made this rathera somewhat controversial claim that corvids are as clever as chimpanzees. This explores the whole idea of independent evolution between distantly related groups of animals with many very different traits. You could argue ‘is it really convergent evolution, and I think that our argument would be that if you find these traits in crows and you find them in chimpanzees but you don’t find them in a number of species then surely it must be a case of convergence.

For a specific experiment, I think it’s really the work on mental time travel and theory of mind. We have shown that scrub jays are able to remember what happened where and when. This was the first evidence that animals can actually remember the past, as opposed to just knowing about it. When this was first published, in ‘Nature’ in 1998, people assumed that animals didn’t remember the past, they just knew about it, and that they didn’t have an episodic memory and so were unable to mentally time travel.  That’s opened up a new field of thinking, and since then quite a lot of people looked in various different species, so that is pretty interesting. Then I suppose the corollary of that is that we have shown that they can plan ahead, that they can take action into the future, with the future in mind.

The other work is the theory of mind related work, showing that these jays that have been watched by other birds, will rapidly stash their food the moment the other birds have left the scene, and they will then come back and hide it in new places.  This is something that they only do if they themselves have been thieves. 

This shows that they have experience projection; that they can put themselves in another’s shoes, and I suppose that it is really the converging evidence to bear on the fact that these seem to be doing all of these remarkably intelligent things. Scientists such as Eric Jarvis have been looking in detail the neuroanatomy of the bird brain, and have realised that even though it doesn’t have the layers of the mammalian brain, actually the way in which it is organised in terms of patterns of connectivity suggest that it has much more higher function and cognitive abilities than had ever been thought before.

All of a sudden people are realising that it is wrong to think of ‘bird brain’ as a derogatory term, probably quite the opposite -  ‘brainy bird’!”

What are the big questions in the field of animal cognition?

“Obviously one problem is the thorny problem of consciousness; to what extent, are these abilities that we are seeing in the birds, similar or dissimilar to our own cognitive abilities, and how can we ever assume humans are associating with various levels of consciousness and how can we approach that in birds?

For it is one thing to say they can remember that they can remember what happened where and when, it is quite another to say that like us they are aware of being the owner or the author of the memory.

How could you get to that in the absence of any agreed non-linguistic markers? One approach is to take these tasks that we have done on birds and apply them to humans. Another thing is trying to understand what the cognitive milestones are, and asking if rooks, jays and children go through the same developmental stages, and do they make the same kind of errors in the patterns of thinking. Given different types of brain, different types of past evolutionary history you would expect similarities and differences, but that pattern of similarities and differences might help up have a better model of what is going on. I think that there is a danger otherwise that we just label it as cognition without actually understanding the underlying mechanisms. There needs to be a big emphasis on really trying to understand more of the underlying processes, and how they might work.”

What are the behavioural differences between the bird species that you study?

“I’m interested in the similarities and the differences and how the environment in which the animals live and the selection pressures that they have undergone might shape their behaviour. For example, jays are territorial and rooks are highly social, and so we can use them to study the interplay of social structures and learning.

We also have a program where we are looking at how humans cope with various problem solving tasks and how the corvids do it, and within the corvids how the rooks and jays do it versus how the New Caledonian crows do it. We are interested in that because New Caledonian crows manufacture tools as a living – that is what they do in nature. Rooks and jays don’t, yet when you give them problem-solving tasks in the lab which require the use of tools, they rapidly use tools. We want to know whether the New Caledonian crows are actually better at this task than rooks and jays, because they have had generations of having to do it.”

You have been involved in numerous critically lauded dance projects – how does this tie in with science?

“One of my science science-dance collaborations is with Rambert, and specifically working with the choreographer and artistic director of Rambert, Mark Baldwin, we who choreographed a piece called ‘Comedy of Change; which was all about evolution and includes a dance section that was the human version of inspired by the bird of paradise’s moves dance. Rambert won a Laurence Olivier award in part because of this project.

We are now working on a piece for 2016 for Rambert’s 90th anniversary, based on Haydn’s ‘The Creation’, about the origin of life and of time, and I am going to~ we argue that time didn’t exist before life existed, because or to put it another way without consciousness you didn’t have thiswho has a concept of time.”?”

How important is creativity in your work?

“I think that creativity is very important in both artistic and scientific processes. I think that a lot of people think that sciences and arts are very different, that is that the arts areis all about creativity and ideas, and that science is all about measuring things. But in truth, to do a good experiment you need to be creative, and to have good ideas and to ask the right questions, and in truth an artist also needs to measure and to evaluate. I think back to the days of Da Vinci – why can’t we be both?”

Do you have any advice on how to lead a career as interesting as yours?

“I have a little phrase that I like to use, which is ‘enthusiastic serendipity’ because I think that it so much of life is precisely about is serendipity, it isabout luck, but you make your own luck, because if you are too busy and you cram your life too much, all the big things can pass you by. Sometimes you just have to be opportunistic and intuitive, and think ‘that sounds like it would be fun’. You have to have this passion to be a scientist or an artist, above all it is about being willing to engage with creativityt.”

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