Capacity and limits of associative memory in pigeons

Psychon Bull Rev. 2005 Apr;12(2):350-8. doi: 10.3758/bf03196384.


How much information can a brain store over a lifetime's experience? The answer to this important, but little researched, question was investigated by looking at the long-term visual memory capacity of 2 pigeons. Over 700 sessions, the pigeons were tested with an increasingly larger pool of pictorial stimuli in a two-alternative discrimination task (incremented in sets of 20 or 30 pictures). Each picture was randomly assigned to either a right or a left choice response, forcing the pigeons to memorize each picture and its associated response. At the end of testing, 1 pigeon was performing at 73% accuracy with a memory set of over 1,800 pictures, and the 2nd was at 76% accuracy with a memory set of over 1,600 pictures. Adjusted for guessing, models of the birds' performance suggested that the birds had access, on average, to approximately 830 memorized picture-response associations and that these were retained for months at a time. Reaction time analyses suggested that access to these memories was parallel in nature. Over the last 6 months of testing, this capacity estimate was stable for both birds, despite their learning increasingly more items, suggesting some limit on the number of picture-response associations that could be discriminated and retained in the long-term memory portion of this task. This represents the first empirically established limit on long-term memory use for any vertebrate species. The existence of this large exemplar-specific memory capacity has important implications for the evolution of stimulus control and for current theories of avian and human cognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Association*
  • Cognition
  • Columbidae
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Memory*
  • Visual Perception