People have an incredible ability to remember things from the past, even when it is something of little or no importance. Evoke what we had for dinner last Christmas or that joke that a friend told three months ago is part of the processes of episodic memory.
A study published in Current Biology, conducted by researchers from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, reveals that dogs have a memory similar to that of humans.
"The results can be considered as one more step to break down the barriers between non-human animals and humans", Claudia Fugazza explains to Sinc. "We have them ready, but we are still surprised by the research that shows that we share some mental abilities, despite a very different evolution," he adds.
Human episodic memory refers to the explicit evocation of autobiographical events. The term was coined in 1972 by Endel Tulving, who established the difference between semantic (knowing) and episodic (remembering) memory. The first is more factual, while the second is a feeling or sensation that we bring back from our past.
In animals, the name “episodic-like memory” refers to the ability to encode and obtain information - what, when and where - about a given event. The qualifier is due to the fact that there is no reliable evidence that shows awareness in this way of remembering.
In previous studies, Fugazza and her colleagues found that dogs could mimic human actions, even after 24 hours of witnessing them. The only fundamental condition was to give them a prior order. In this way, it was shown that dogs have a semantic memory that implies the preparation of a response, at the same time that the message (the command) is encoded.
Regarding whether episodic memory really exists in animals, it is not as simple as asking the animal what it remembers. The researchers took advantage of an imitation trick so that the dogs, upon seeing a person do something, would imitate it themselves. Thus, if the owner jumped, the dog would imitate him when executing the command.
Experiments to recognize actions
The scientists trained 17 dogs of different breeds who had to repeat human actions with the imitation trick, such as touching an umbrella. Subsequently, another round of training was done so that the dogs fell to the ground when they saw the action, no matter what it was. Both tests were repeated at intervals of one minute and one hour.
However, as this training alone is not strong evidence of canine episodic memory, the researchers had to prove that dogs remember what they have seen a person do, even when they are not expecting attention or rewards. To do this, an element of surprise was added to the previous order to see how the animals reacted.
“In these unexpected mock tests, the dogs spontaneously lay down first, waiting for the command. When the owner unexpectedly gave the imitation command, the dogs imitated the action previously demonstrated. But their memory declined rapidly (that is, fewer dogs imitated) the longer the time interval was, ”the expert emphasizes to Sinc.
The experiment thus shows that pets remember what they see the person do, even though they have no apparent reason to remember it. However, your memory decreases as the time intervals increase.
For scientists, this strategy is adaptable and can be used for a wide range of species. The research would allow us to understand the minds of animals, and how they process their own actions and those of their environment.
"From an evolutionary perspective, this experiment demonstrates that episodic memory is not unique or evolved only in primates, but is more widespread in the animal kingdom," concludes Fugazza.
C. Fugazza et al .: “Recall of Others’ Actions after Incidental Encoding Reveals Episodic-like Memory in Dogs ”. Current Biology November 23, 2016.
Photo: Researcher Claudia Fugazza and her dog in a simple demonstration of the experiment. / Mirko Lui