Merging of long-term memories in an insect

  • Hunt K
  • Chittka L
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Research on comparative cognition has largely focused on successes and failures of animals to solve certain cognitive tasks, but in humans, memory errors can be more complex than simple failures to retrieve information [1, 2]. The existence of various types of "false memories," in which individuals remember events that they have never actually encountered, are now well established in humans [3, 4]. We hypothesize that such systematic memory errors may be widespread in animals whose natural lifestyle involves the processing and recollection of memories for multiple stimuli [5]. We predict that memory traces for various stimuli may "merge," such that features acquired in distinct bouts of training are combined in an animal's mind, so that stimuli that have never been viewed before, but are a combination of the features presented in training, may be chosen during recall. We tested this using bumblebees, Bombus terrestris. When individuals were first trained to a solid single-colored stimulus followed by a black and white (b/w)-patterned stimulus, a subsequent preference for the last entrained stimulus was found in both short-term- and long-term-memory tests. However, when bees were first trained to b/w-patterned stimuli followed by solid single-colored stimuli and were tested in long-term-memory tests 1 or 3 days later, they only initially preferred the most recently rewarded stimulus, and then switched their preference to stimuli that combined features from the previous color and pattern stimuli. The observed merging of long-term memories is thus similar to the memory conjunction error found in humans [6].

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  • Kathryn L. Hunt

  • Lars Chittka

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