a theory of mind

by Bernard De Koven on December 28, 2012

I think that, to fully grasp the scope and power of play, we need to go beyond ourselves, to learn to include other, stranger players. Some of the teachers who have helped me understand the true breadth of the field of play are students of animal behavior. People like Marc Bekoff and Jonathan Balcombe, for example, who help us understand animals as feeling beings, are amply represented on this site. Today, I am pleased to introduce Analee Newitz, another student of animal behavior, who, in her article “Corvids: The Birds Who Think Like Humans,” brings us evidence of yet another connection to another species of players. That connection: the possibility that they, like us, have minds. Not just brains, but, like us, minds. Here’s a taste of her thinking, from a much longer article that I hope will move you as it has myself:

“…crows and other corvids have a theory of mind, which allows them to understand and anticipate the behavior of other creatures around them. This is why, for example, crows are able to figure out that it’s a good idea to scavenge for food on the Seattle ferry between cars — they’ve seen people toss food out the windows before, and anticipate they’ll do it again. It’s why scrub jays know that the crows are watching them to try to steal their peanuts. Crows also use tools, bending sticks to turn them into hooks for retrieving food.

“They play, as you can see from this video of a crow surfing on a snowy roof in Russia.

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“And they’ll even feed other animals, as this pet crow does with his dog and cat pals.

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“Their highly-developed brains — different from mammal’s but no less complex — seem capable of planning for the future (caching), guessing at motivations and acting accordingly (re-caching food) and problem solving (tool use).

“Do crows, jays and other corvids share with humans the ability to know themselves and know other creatures too? Or are they merely acting on instinct, which we mistake for more complex thought patterns? It’s impossible to say for certain. But there is no doubt that they are extremely intelligent, social animals, who count humans among those creatures they are willing to trust.”


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