Are Animals Stuck in Time or Are They Chronesthetic Creatures?


Correspondent should be sent to N. S. Clayton, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, UK. E-mail:


Although psychologists study both the objective (behavior) and the subjective (phenomenology) components of cognition, we argue that an overemphasis on the subjective drives a wedge between psychology and other closely related scientific disciplines, such as comparative studies of cognition and artificial intelligence. This wedge is particularly apparent in contemporary studies of episodic recollection and future planning, two related abilities that many have assumed to be unique to humans. We shall challenge this doctrine. To do so, we shall adopt an ethological approach to comparative cognition and this necessitates two requirements. The first is that memory and planning need to be characterized in terms of objectively defined properties as opposed to purely phenomenological ones; the ability to remember what happened, where, and how long ago is a critical behavioral criterion for episodic memory. The second requirement is the identification of an ethological context in which these memories would confer a selective advantage. As a consequence, we turn this debate into an empirical evaluation in nonlinguistic animals and one embodied in synthetic creatures. Indeed, our behavioral conception of flexibly deployable information about “what, where, and when” has so far supported a comparative cognition in animals as diverse as corvids and primates. We argue that this approach may clarify and challenge ideas that have been based solely on research with human subjects, without the need to be constrained by phenomenological assumptions based on human-centric ways of thinking.