You’re probably worse at multitasking than a pigeon
I’m sorry to break it to you but there’s a strong chance a pigeon could beat you in a multitasking test.
A new study has found that the birds can switch between tasks faster and more efficiently than humans, and it is thought this is because of the densely packed neurons in the animal’s brain.
As much as it may seem like a random thing to study (and could even be an early contender for an IG Nobel), the researchers from two German universities wanted to understand where someone’s ability to multitask comes from.
“For a long time, scientists used to believe the mammalian cerebral cortex to be the anatomical cause of cognitive ability; it is made up of six cortical layers,” said Sara Letzner, from Rurh University of Bochum.
In birds, this structure does not exist, yet they can still multitask. “That means the structure of the mammalian cortex cannot be decisive for complex cognitive functions such as multitasking.”
The authors of the paper, published in Current Biology, gave 12 pigeons and 15 humans a multitasking exercise where they had to switch between tasks. In one case, the participant had to switch to the second task at the same time as completing the other, and in the second case this was delayed.
In the first case, the pigeons and humans slowed down by the same amount of time. But in the second task, pigeons were 250 milliseconds faster than humans. A marginal difference, but significant nonetheless
Pigeon brains have not got the mammalian cortex, but their neurons are six times more densely packed than in humans, meaning the average distance between neurons in pigeons is half that in humans.
“Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience have been wondering for a long time how it was possible that some birds, such as crows or parrots, are smart enough to rival chimpanzees in terms of cognitive abilities, despite their small brains and their lack of a cortex,” says Letzner.
The results of the current study provide a partial answer to this mystery. Because their small brains are densely packed with nerve cells, birds are able to reduce the processing time tricky tasks.
Perhaps it’s time ‘bird-brained’ became a compliment.