Can animals tell time?

Travis-Todd , Dr. Doug Williams

Dr. Travis Todd and Dr. Doug Williams, photo supplied.

UWinnipeg professor Dr. Doug Williams and two of his former undergraduate students Travis Todd and Chrissy Chubala, have published an award winning article titled Intertrial unconditioned stimuli differentially impact trace conditioning, that shows that animals have a keen appreciation for the passage of time.

They are the recipient of the 2017 Best Article Award in Learning & Behavior, awarded by the Psychomomic Society. Williams will formally be presented with the award at the Psychonomic Society’s annual meeting in Vancouver, BC this November.

Researchers already know that animals can track time using their own “mental stopwatches.” A cue (light or sound) can act as a time marker and trigger an action at a much later time when the cue is absent.  This “counting down” process isn’t thought to be a deliberative or conscious effort by the animal to track time, it’s automatic.

“Our experiments showed responding is initially inhibited (the response is actively hindered rather than just failing to occur) so it occurs closer to the correct time and not too early,” said Williams, who is the Chair of Psychology at UWinnipeg.

The article authors applied a neuron-like mathematical model to their data in collaboration with Dr. Ludvig, a Canadian expat (and lover of the Montreal Expos) working at the University of Warwick in the UK.

The Psychonomic Society is the home for scientists who study how the mind works. Members of the Society are cognitive psychologists and include some of the most distinguished researchers in the field. Their innovative research uses converging methods such as brain imaging and computer science to achieve their research goals. 

UWinnipeg offers undergraduate students a well-rounded academic experience that gives them a distinct competitive advantage over their counterparts at other institutions thanks to the tremendous opportunities to engage in research and scholarship alongside faculty like Dr. Williams.

Dr. Chubala recently defended her PhD at the University of Manitoba and is heading to Memorial University in Newfoundland to conduct postdoctoral research. Dr. Todd completed his PhD at the University of Vermont, and is currently a research scientist at Dartmouth College, which is part of the academically distinguished Ivy League. Both were supported by scholarships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC).

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