A critique of the neuroecology of learning and memory

Trends Cogn Sci. 2001 Oct 1;5(10):426-433. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(00)01753-8.


Recent years have seen the emergence of neuroecology, the study of the neural mechanisms of behaviour guided by functional and evolutionary principles. This research has been of enormous value for our understanding of the evolution of brain- and species-specific behaviour. However, we question the validity of the neuroecological approach when applied to the analysis of learning and memory, given its arbitrary assumption that different 'problems' engage different memory mechanisms. Differences in memory-based performance in 'natural' tasks do not prove differences in memory capacity; similarly, differences in the use of memory in the natural environment do not provide a sound basis for expecting differences in anatomical structures that subserve learning and memory. This critique is illustrated with examples taken from the study of the neurobiology of food storing and song learning in birds.