Ways of Thinking

From Crows To Children And Back Again

Nicola Clayton FRS

Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge

In this talk I will review some of the recent work on the remarkable cognitive capacities of food-caching corvids. Research on human developmental cognition suggests that children do not pass similar tests until they are at least four years of age in the case of the social cognition experiments, and eight years of age in the case of the tasks that tap into physical cognition. This developmental trajectory seems surprising~ intuitively, one might have thought that the social and planning tasks required more complex forms of cognitive process, namely Mental Time Travel and Theory of Mind. I will present our latest findings on physical cognition in children aged 4 to 11, which may reveal some intriguing clues to answer this mystery. I will also talk about the use of magic effects to reveal blind spots in seeing and roadblocks in seeing, some of which apply to both the jays and to humans. Future research aims to understand the mechanisms underlying these abilities in both humans and corvids, thereby exploring similarities and differences in these different and distantly related varieties of mind.


Nicola Clayton FRS is the Professor of Comparative Cognition and a University Teaching Officer in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University, and a Fellow of Clare College. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2010.

Her expertise as a scientist lies in the contemporary study of how animals and children think. This work has led to a re-evaluation of the cognitive capacities of animals, particularly birds, and resulted in a theory that intelligence evolved independently in at least two distantly related groups, the apes and the crows. She has also pioneered new procedures for the experimental study of memory and imagination in animals, investigating its relationship to human memory and consciousness, and how and when these abilities develop in young children.

In addition to scientific research and teaching, she is a dancer, specializing in tango and salsa. She is also Scientist in Residence at the Rambert Dance Company, collaborating with Mark Baldwin, the Artistic Director, on new choreographic works inspired by science (Comedy of Change, 2009; Seven For A Secret Never To Be Told, 2011; What Wild Ecstasy, 2012).

Her most recent collaboration with artist Clive Wilkins arose out of their mutual interest in imagination, and its consequences for consciousness, identity and memory. They also regularly dance tango together.