Do modern dinosaurs have a theory of mind?

March 11, 2013 • 10:37 am

by Matthew Cobb

A jay (taken from here)

Imagining that others experience the same feelings as oneself, or being able to see things from another’s perspective, is an essential part of being an adult human – it’s called having a ‘theory of mind’. Young children find it difficult, and either learn it or develop this ability as part of normal growth. Severely autistic individuals can also fail some of the simple tests that are used to measure this ability. This character, or a primitive version of it, must have been present in our primate ancestors, and there is evidence that chimps can attribute ‘intentionality’ to human behaviour, which suggests they can image what we feel/think.

Now, in a paper just published in PNAS, Professor Nicky Clayton’s group from the University of Cambridge have shown that the Eurasian jay – a beautiful bird that very occasionally comes into my (very small) back garden, are apparently able to attribute ‘desire-states’ to other birds. In children, attributing a ‘desire-state’ to an individual (their wants and wishes) occurs prior to the development of a fully-fledged theory of mind. If Clayton’s group is right, and jays do have the ability to attribute ‘desire-states’ to other individuals, the simplest explanation is that the same ability has evolved at least twice – once in our hominid lineage, and once (and perhaps first) in the avian dinosaur lineage.

The authors set up a cooperative feeding experiment, in which males could provide their mate with food. The reason for this is that it is presumed that there is a link between cooperative behaviour and state-attribution (and food-sharing is a key part of courtship behaviour in jays). The females had already eaten as much as they wanted of one of two kinds of food (either waxmoth larvae or mealworm larvae). The hypothesis was that if the males could attribute a desire-state to their partner and had observed her at the eat-all-you-an-eat buffet with one kind of food, he would be less likely to offer her that food. And this is exactly what happened – the males would share significantly less of the food that the female had been eating.

For the doubting Thomases and Thomasinas, although the sample size was small (7 pairs) they did the experiment 20 times on each pair, swapped around which food the females were stuffing themselves on and also included a maintenance diet control. And they included an ‘unseen’ condition in which the male couldn’t see what the female had eaten; in this case there was no significant effect, showing it wasn’t the female shaking her head and saying ‘no thanks, I’ve eaten too much of them already’ when proffered one kind of food. It looks pretty tightly designed to me.

The authors deal with some of the obvious criticisms:

“The results of the unseen condition negate the possibility that the males might have learned a simple rule (such as “do not feed what has just been eaten”). Learning about an action can only occur when that action is reinforced (regardless of the content of what is being learned). Therefore, in our case, for the male to learn when is an appropriate situation in which to feed the female different foods, he must have experience of the acceptance or rejection of certain foods by the female. As discussed earlier, the results of the unseen condition indicate that the female’s immediate behavior when the male is sharing the food during the test phase is not sufficient to elicit the differential sharing pattern by the males: it is only in the seen condition that the male provides the food that the female desires. This difference between the seen and unseen conditions makes it highly unlikely that males would have been able to previously learn any rule for which the female’s acceptance or rejection of his attempts at sharing would have acted as the reinforcement.”

They are also extremely careful about how far their data should be interpreted. They conclude, circumspectly:

“The results of the current study present a crucial first step in demonstrating state-attribution. They fulfill the necessary behavioral criteria, namely ruling out behavior reading at the time of action and providing evidence of self–other differentiation. Our study suggests that the Eurasian jays’ food-sharing behavior represents a useful paradigm within which to investigate whether these birds, and more generally nonhuman animals, might be capable of desire-attribution.”

So the answer to the question in the title of this post is: we have no evidence that jays (those are the modern dinosaurs, of course) have a theory of mind; but it seems that they can do something that is on the way to having such a theory.

In one way, you might say this is no surprise. Corvids (jays, crows, magpies etc) are amazingly smart, as Clayton’s group has shown on a number of occasions, in particular in their tool use and their ability to pretend to hide food if they see another bird watching them (this would indicate desire-state attribution, too, I think). And magpies are the only non-mammals that have been shown to pass the mirror self-recognition test, which is one of the proxies we have for something like consciousness. Furthermore, the English poet Chaucer knew this, and made a caustic comparison between the intelligence of the jay and the stupidity of the Pope in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

And eek ye knowen wel how that a jay

Kan clepen “Watte” as wel a kan the pope


Ljerka Ostojić, Rachael C. Shaw, Lucy G. Cheke, and Nicola S. Clayton (2013) Evidence suggesting that desire-state attribution may govern food sharing in Eurasian jays. PNAS March 5, 2013 vol. 110 no. 10 4123-4128

23 thoughts on “Do modern dinosaurs have a theory of mind?

  1. Beautiful and smart, one of the most common birds in my corner of the world. Hard to miss, being rather “talkative” and loud, as their well-earned genus name “Garrulus” indicates.

  2. I have some non-scientific evidence for the theory of mind among stellar blue jays. On occasion, I feed peanuts to the stellar blue jays in my yard. They cram 2 or 3 peanuts in their beaks and fly off to stash them.

    Unfortunately, their fellow corvids, crows, also like the peanuts, and I, being prejudiced by appearance, attempted to prevent the crows from getting the peanuts. I did this by putting the peanuts in an enclosure which is easy to enter for the smaller birds.

    After doing this, the crows resorted to shadowing the blue jays when they went off to stash their peanuts. Interestingly, I observed that the blue jays began taking peanuts out of the enclosure and putting them where the crows could find them. I infer that the blue jays did this to reduce the chance that the crows would trail them to their nests and stash sites.

    1. There is a nit in your posting that demands picking: the correct name is “Steller’s jay”, not “stellar”, nor “blue”. (They are blue and black, but the blue is not part of their English name. Note that the common names of birds in English have official status, unlike those of plants.

      These jays named after the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. Nothing to do with stars.

      Consider this nit well and truly picked.

  3. “There’s more to a jay than any other creature. You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure, ’cause he’s got feathers on him and he don’t belong to no church perhaps, but otherwise he’s just as much a human as you and me”

    Mark Twain

  4. I recommend reading the poem in which Dafydd ap Gwilym (a Welsh contemporary of Chaucer and one of the greatest, and funniest, European poets of his time, though since he is Welsh, regrettably few people bother to acquaint themselves with him)descibes a quarrel with a magpie. The magpie comes off best…

  5. I wish more careful planning had gone into coming up with the term “theory of mind for I cannot help but to cringe whenever I hear/read it. The phrase conjures up mental images of woo-peddling, so much so that I half expect Deepak Chopra to have a Quantum Theory of Mind book (or maybe he already does). Is it too late to rename it?

  6. When my zebra finches had a clutch of four babies, the dad did almost all of the feeding, and he made a point of going to each of the food sources I put into the cage before returning to the nest (bird food, chopped kale, egg, and then he’d take a sip of water). He did this repeatedly until the babies stopped squawking. He may have an instinct to gather food when the babies squawk but wouldn’t he shut them up faster if he’d just taken from one food dish and rushed back to the nest?

    Last Spring I watched the Decorah eagles’ webcam and saw how the mama eagle would scold dad if he came back to the nest with a fish but ate the eyes and didn’t leave them for her. I may have been anthropomorphizing them, but it sure appeared that she was saying “I’ve been sitting on these damn nestlings all this time and the least you could do is save the damn fish eyes for me. You know I like them! Now go get me a fish and this time I get the eyes!”

    1. Nice observations.

      Speaking of zebra finches and eagles, one of the clever things that zebs do in the wild is build massive colonial nests in the interstices of active wedge-tailed eagle (wedgie) nests (I got some good pictures of this in the Pilbara). They are too small for eagles to bother with, but it must tend to reduce the threat of other raptors, goannas, pythons, quolls and whatnot, which are either on the wedgie’s menu or likely to give them some space.

  7. If anyone here has the knowledge and the time, I would greatly appreciate a post about the evolutionary history of the lineage of crossbill birds. Symmetry breaking is always interesting.

    1. As far as I know, we have nothing. There are no intermediate fossils. And their closest living relatives are just ordinary finches. Whatever happened, it happened out of sight of our common sources of evidence. It might be that an investigation of the genetics of bill asymmetry would turn up an evolutionary pathway, but to my knowledge nobody has tried that.

  8. On a “I’ve watched their behaviour and I think they’re intelligent” argument, well, obviously I think they’ve got something going on inside. “More than some ‘intelligent’ humans,” I sometimes think. Beyond that … if I really cared, I’d have studied Psychology instead of Geology (the psychology department had more, and prettier, girls ; maybe not my brightest move ever!).
    Almost completely unrelated, for a good while now I’ve used the signature “Birds are not dinosaur descendants; birds are dinosaurs, for all useful meanings of “birds”, “are” and “dinosaurs”

  9. “And eek ye knowen wel how that a jay

    Kan clepen “Watte” as wel a kan the pope”

    Chaucer = the original LOLspeak?

  10. I don’t find this the least bit surprising. To be successful, organisms model their environment. If your environment is filed with creatures like yourself, what would prevent your model of your environment from including their desires? And if your model gets sufficiently complicated, it would include your own desires, too – and consciousness emerges.

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