Do you remember your last meal? Okay, maybe you can. But what about your lunch last Wednesday? Chances are you probably can’t. That’s because our episodic memory has been shown to deteriorate over time. Surely other animals are the same, right? Well, think again—recent research from the University of Cambridge confirms that cuttlefish can. It’s about time we drop the ‘three-second memory’ stereotype.
Don’t be fooled by their cute facade, these strange-looking sea creatures give off big brain energy—literally—boasting the largest brains among the invertebrate animal kingdom. And recent research clarifies that cuttlefish are able to put these big brains to good use: allowing them to remember what, where and when specific things happened right up to their final days of life.
The cephalopods, which somewhere down the evolutionary line share the same ancestors as octopi and squid, have three hearts, eight arms, bluish-green blood and regenerating limbs. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they’ve been manifested in the imagination of a sci-fi novelist. But they’re not—they’re very much real and even have the ability to exert self-control.
And it’s for this reason that these particular animals have been the focus of scientists’ attention for some time. The University of Cambridge’s recent breakthrough has further pricked their ears. Scientists observed that as the creatures grow older, they show signs of declining muscle function and appetite but appear to remember what they ate, as well as where and when, using this knowledge to guide their future feeding decisions.
The importance of this study becomes clear when contrasting the cognitive behaviour of cuttlefish to humans. In contrast to humans, who gradually lose the ability to remember experiences that occurred at a particular place and time with age, cuttlefish are able to consistently recall such experiences. This is called episodic memory—the ability to recall and mentally re-experience specific episodes from one’s personal past. For instance, what you ate for lunch last week. Its deterioration in humans is linked to a region of the brain called the hippocampus. Cuttlefish, however, don’t possess a hippocampus in their alien-looking heads. Instead, they learn and remember experiences through a part of their brain called the ‘vertical lobe’.
In the study, Doctor Alexandra Schnell, as well as her colleagues, tested the memories of 24 cuttlefish, 12 of which were 10 to 12 months olds and 12 of which were 22 to 24 months old—in cuttlefish years, half would be teenagers and half would be pensioners. One experiment trained both groups of cuttlefish to approach a specific location in the tank they were kept in, with two different foods being provided at different times. Grass shrimps—a cuttlefish’s favourite cuisine—were provided at a different spot to the location they were originally taught to find food but only every three hours. After around four weeks, the molluscs learnt that if they waited for longer they would be rewarded with that sweet, sweet grass shrimp.
To rule out that the cuttlefish hadn’t just learned a pattern of behaviour and were actually using their episodic memory, the team of researchers picked different locations in the tank each day of the test, showing that the molluscs were able to recall the experience—not just act out of habit. The animals also recalled what they ate during the initial feed, where they ate it and how much time had passed.
Although these findings may seem somewhat trivial at face value, they have significant worth for our understanding of animal cognition and our own cognition too. Malcolm Kennedy, professor of natural history at the University of Glasgow, told The Guardian that it’s refreshing to come across another case where aspects of animal cognition can be as advanced as our own—despite huge evolutionary time separation and a different nervous system. He continued, “The pedestal upon which humans place themselves in terms of neurological abilities continues to crumble. It is just that other types of animals perform similar functions differently.” Maybe it’s time we humans start respecting other creatures that share our planet as such.
Forget Space X or Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s ambitious neurotechnology project has just made a breakthrough akin to your wildest sci-fi fantasy: a monkey is now able to play Pong solely with its mind. The demonstration by the company Neuralink is a prime example of a brain-machine interface in action. With human trials set to start later this year, what does this mean for humanity as we know it?
Last year, the company successfully implanted a chip into a pig’s brain to measure visual information and sensory data from its snout. Last month, the company successfully implanted a chip into a monkey’s brain so it could play Pong—the two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis—using only its mind. It’s safe to say Neuralink is making (brain) waves within the emerging neurotechnology industry.
It all started with a coin-sized disc, called a ‘link’, which is implanted by a precision surgical robot into the monkey’s brain, connecting thousands of micro threads from the chip to neurons responsible for controlling motion. The nine-year-old monkey called Pager—presumably unaware that it’s the centrepiece of a scientific breakthrough and internet fame—had two Neurolink devices put on each side of his brain six weeks before. Pager was then taught to use a joystick to move a cursor to targets on a screen in exchange for a banana smoothie. What could possibly go wrong, right?
The ‘link’ device then records the monkey’s neuron activity while he interacts with the joystick and cursor. The narrator of the video explains this is only possible due to thousands of tiny wires implanted into Pager’s motor cortex—the part of the brain that coordinates hand and arm movements. The data is then fed into a decoder algorithm, predicting Pager’s intended hand movements in real-time.
Neuralink claims that once the decoder is calibrated, the monkey is free to control the cursor without relying on the joystick—essentially controlling the cursor with only its mind. The joystick is then deactivated as the video shows the monkey playing Pong with, and only with, its mind. It’s proof of the astonishing scientific advances we humans can achieve—Pager is able to play Pong telepathically with more accuracy than I ever could on my 2008 flip phone.
To put it bluntly, it’s too early to tell. However, there is reason to believe we’re witnessing the emergence of a new technology that could have a serious impact on society. Bearing in mind that this is mostly hypothetical, aside from Pager’s ability to play a video game telepathically, which is now objective science—let’s start with the positives.
Neuralink claims that the technology could assist people who are paralysed from brain or spinal injuries, giving them the ability to control computerised devices with their minds—similar to how Pager was able to control a cursor with just his brain. If all goes to plan, it would be an invaluable way for paraplegics, quadriplegics or victims of strokes to live a free and autonomous life. The ‘link’ chip might also be able to connect with other technology, for instance, making prosthetic limbs feel ‘real’.
This experiment’s success also touches upon how the technology could, theoretically, be a valuable treatment for psychological and neurological conditions like depression or addiction—even claiming to restore senses for those who are blind or deaf. This is all very up there but there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic of how developments in neurotechnology could drastically change medicine as we know it, and for the good.
It’s worth noting the positives go beyond therapeutic value too. The technology could offer a faster way of interacting with computers—we wouldn’t be limited to the QWERTY keyboard anymore, instead, we’d be able to send messages at the speed of thought. Granted, this would make being ghosted by your Tinder match that extra bit painful.
Scientists have also theorised that the technology could connect brains to the cloud. This would essentially change human intelligence as we know it—an individual’s ‘native’ intelligence could be augmented by accessing cloud-based artificial intelligence. It sounds whacky now but imagine explaining Google to someone in the early 90s.
Alright, I’m going to burst the positive bubble here: criminals have, and most likely always will adapt to new technology in order to exploit the vulnerable. It’s happened with credit cards, with the internet, and it even happened with COVID-19—there’s no reason to believe that once this technology is mainstream, it’ll be invincible to those with bad intentions.
Scientists warn that without “bulletproof security”, hackers could access implanted chips, causing malfunctions or misdirections of their actions. Similar to that Wallace and Gromit episode where an evil penguin hacked the robotic trousers to steal from a bank, staging Wallace in the process—only with much darker consequences. A device vulnerable to such actions could be fatal for the disabled individuals the technology serves to benefit.
It’s an ethical and philosophical issue that still plagues the neurotechnology field to this day. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, some have raised concerns that developments in AI working through a brain-machine interface could take control of the host’s brain through nanotechnology. The very man himself, Elon Musk, has previously warned that AI poses an existential threat to humanity—claiming AI is set to overtake humans in less than five years.
It’s a tricky ethical minefield to manoeuvre. And if animal testing wasn’t unethical enough, human trials are set to start at the beginning of this year. Scientists have warned that we must devote enough time and effort to building safeguards. However, if implemented safely, the technology could bring enormous positives to society.
As for me: I’m a writer, not a scientist, there’s little value I can add to the discussion other than what I’ve already said. I guess it’s a waiting game—if in twenty years I can order a pizza just by thinking (and my brain isn’t hacked by cybercriminals), I’ll be happy knowing science has done its job.