Tenta-cool: Cephalopod passes cognitive test designed for human children

Harry Linley discusses the 'inkredible' cuttlefish showing signs of human-like intelligence

Harry Linley
29th March 2021
Image Credit: Francis Nie on Unsplash
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that cuttlefish are able to exert self-control in an adapted version of the 'Stanford marshmallow experiment'.

The original 'marshmallow experiment' was designed by psychologist Walter Mischel to test children’s ability to delay gratification. In the 1972 experiment, children were placed in a room with a marshmallow and told they could either eat it immediately or wait 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows. Children able to wait for the second marshmallow demonstrated the ability to plan ahead and maximize outcomes. Exhibition of self-control has been linked to advanced cognitive abilities and further studies found that the children able to wait had higher levels of educational attainment in later life.

Image Credit: Phoebe Young

Cuttlefish, are part of the diverse group of mollusks known as cephalopods which includes squid, nautilus and octopus. In the cephalopod version of the 'marshmallow experiment', cuttlefish were placed in tanks with two enclosed transparent chambers, one containing raw prawn and the other live grass shrimp, their preferred food. The cuttlefish could either eat the prawn or wait for an interval of time to receive the shrimp.

[T]he cuttlefish 'were all able to wait for the better reward and tolerated delays for up to 50-130 seconds, which is comparable to what we see in large-brained vertebrates'.

According to the lead behavioral ecologist Alexandra Schnell, the study found that the cuttlefish 'were all able to wait for the better reward and tolerated delays for up to 50-130 seconds, which is comparable to what we see in large-brained vertebrates'. In the paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers hypothesised that cuttlefish evolved the ability to delay gratification to assist with hunting; planning when to break camouflage in order to catch the best prey.

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