A Guinea Pig’s Sense of Time
Your cavies might wheek with pleasure when you walk in the room whether you’ve been gone 5 hours or 5 minutes. Researcher William Roberts and his colleagues from The University of Western Ontario in London, Canada might be closer to discovering why. They found rodents can track how much time has passed since discovering a piece of food, such as very little or a lot, but they don’t recall when the discovery occurred relative to anything else. This suggests our pets can’t place specific memories in time. The longer the time between events, the weaker the memory will be. That means when your guinea pigs cry out for food close to mealtime, scientists believe it has more to do with noticing a time of day or internal biological rhythms than it does a sense of time having passed.
This could be a comforting thought to those of us in the animal rescue community who wonder how long a neglected pet may retain memory of the abuse. Response to trauma is often on a different scale than simple recall but it is related. To others, this might seem like a flawed theory. After all, aren’t guinea pigs able to be trained and doesn’t their learning depend on the quality of their memory? It might be easier to think of cavies as young children in this regard. By the age of four children will know how to walk but won’t have the ability to know how or where they learned this skill.
The research suggests that guinea pigs have a limited view of the future as well. When given a choice between one or two rewards, it was obvious for them to choose two. As the supply in the choices grew, they showed less interest in the quantity and simply ate until they were full. They weren’t hungry enough to eat a large quantity and that response catered to immediate hunger needs. It didn’t plan for future hunger. So is the life of a naturally grazing animal with abundant food resources.
There’s very little research to support whether the way humans understand and perceive time with an episodic memory is unique to us or if any of our friends in the animal kingdom share this attribute. It’s very easy to argue many of these research conclusions when we tend to inflate their skills and project human characteristics onto our cavies. Perhaps we could learn something from our guinea pigs who delight in living in the moment.
William A. Roberts, Miranda C. Feeney, Krista MacPherson, Mark Petter, Neil McMillan, Evanya Musolino, “Episodic-Like Memory Based on When or How Long Ago,” Science 4 April 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5872, pp. 113 – 115
O’Neil, Daniela K., Alison Gopnik. ” Young children’s ability to identify the sources of their beliefs.” Developmental Psychology, Vol 27(3), May 1991. pp. 390-397.
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