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Cambridge University Science Magazine
Professor Nicky Clayton sits with her knees tucked up and her feet on the sofa, cradling her cup of coffee in her hand. “I’ve always been interested in birds, from as soon as I could start walking. I’m a movement junkie. I wanted to fly, to be like a bird. I’ve got invisible wings – can’t you see them?” She shimmies, and smiles. Nicky may be a Professor and a Fellow of the Royal Society, but she is also dancer, an artist, even a bird – and these parts of her are never far from her work.

The Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, Nicky Clayton, is a paradigm-shifter. Her work has challenged the assumption that cognitive abilities such as planning, reminiscing, understanding the minds of others, are unique to humans. Previously, only apes were thought to come close to human intelligence. Now, Nicky’s ‘feathered apes’ have joined the platform: the corvids, a family of birds that includes crows, jays, and magpies.

At the beginning of Nicky’s academic trajectory, she “felt like a second-class citizen” in the field comparative cognition. “Memory research was mostly conducted with rats and mice, so why bother with birds? And secondly, food caching research was really focused on spatial memory,” rather than episodic memory, which we use to remember past events – what happened, when, and where. Then, in 1996, she met Tony Dickinson at a conference, while she was fielding questions from an audience. Nicky remembers that first encounter well. “Tony stood up and said, ‘Animals don’t have episodic memory.’ ‘How do you know?’ I asked, which is my go-to question for getting to the bottom of scientific understanding. He said, ‘There is no evidence for it. And I can’t think of a functional reason why it would be beneficial.’” Nicky responded with an example from her subjects at the time, the California scrub-jays. They cache food all year round, some perishable, in the variable weather conditions of California. If a scrub-jay could keep track of which food it had cached, and how long ago – as well as the location – they would be able to make the most of every cache. Dickinson was swayed by her argument. “I think of people as animals, by the way, and I think of him as an owl. In that moment, he had a face like a wise snowy owl.” Nicky shows me a ponderous, owl-like expression. Their collaborative paper, ‘Episodic-like memory during cache recovery by scrub-jays’, was published in Nature two years later.

As evidence for advanced cognitive abilities in corvids accumulated, Nicky teamed up with her husband to compare them with apes. Nathan Emery has a background in primatology, but working with Nicky has stimulated an interest in her field, too. “He became interested in birds because I would contradict him every time he started a sentence with, ‘Apes are special because…’ He’s not a bird nerd like I am, but he became fascinated because I was always saying, ‘But birds can…’” Together, Nicky and her husband reviewed the ways in which corvids can indeed match the abilities that formerly made apes ‘special’. The review was published in Science in 2004.

While this is a fascinating topic of conversation, the medical student in me has to ask: why is it important to understand how birds think?

“If you want to know how humans think, you don’t want to only study humans. For example, if I want to know how a computer works, I don’t want to restrict my studies to Windows PC, but also look at Apple Mac computers. Does that make sense? The similarities and differences give better insight into how it works, what limitations and constraints there are.”

Nicky offers me a real-life example from her work. “Humans suffer from temporal myopia: we overvalue our current state of desires, and we think that the past as we remember it is an accurate representation of what happened. Both are fallacious. Both are heuristic constraints. But food-caching corvids are less constrained by their current desires.” They are able to cache regardless of how hungry they feel – an evolutionary necessity to caching behaviour. As humans, however, our memories of past experiences, and therefore our choices for the future, are influenced by how we feel in the moment. “We are worse at dissociating from our current state.” The comparison to food-caching corvids led Nicky’s former PhD student, Lucy Cheke, to design an experiment on menu choices, the results of which has implications for medical research into obesity. “This is one way in which investigating how birds think has deepened our understanding of how humans think. Do you see?” I tell Nicky that she has made convert of me.

Nicky’s affection for her feathered subjects is apparent. In 2000, she agreed to move to Cambridge on one condition – “I must bring the scrub-jays. It’s scrub-jays and Nicky, or no Nicky.” I am fiercely curious as to whether she has favourites, but her response is neutral. “I don’t like the word ‘personality’ because I sound like I’m anthropomorphising. But they are all different. Wiggins is shy. She’s the creative one. She’s an architect; she builds walls.” Wiggins is a Eurasian jay, as is Romero, “a fantastic mimic”. Nicky has exchanged fond words with Romero on camera, available online under ‘J’ of the Animal Alphabet produced by the University of Cambridge.

But these days, Nicky’s academic trajectory is taking her away from corvids and into the social cognition of humans – children and adults – much of it inspired by her ‘other life’ as a dancer, performer, and cofounder of The Captured Thought. “I’m interested in the bigger picture. If something is not uniquely human, then you need to study it from both [human and non-human] directions.” Did Nicky foresee her research taking this direction? “No… because you have to let ideas grow organically. A lot of it is inspired by my arts background as well as my science background,” she adds. Nicky is the first Scientist in Residence at Rambert, the contemporary dance company, and founded The Captured Thought – a combination of talks and performances on the theme of imagination and mental time travel – with her tango partner Clive Wilkins, who is Artist in Residence in the psychology department. Sometimes, the two of them perform magic, and “what it reveals about psychology and perception is fascinating. If we were able to follow every causal relationship in front of us, then magic wouldn’t work. But, because our brain is constantly anticipating…” Nicky completes the sentence with an expression that invites me to agree that it really is amazing. Her enthusiastic curiosity leads her research down the path of social cognition – for now, at least.

Just as Nicky’s artistic side permeates her research, so her research saturates her creative work. Nicky looks delighted as she tells me,

“I never possibly imagined I could combine my life as a scientist and my life as a dancer.”

In 2009, she was asked to join the creative team at Rambert for a work called ‘The Comedy of Change’, a celebration of Darwin’s ‘On The Origin of Species’. “I was searching for things that were both true of Darwinian processes but also themes that inspire dance. I don’t think that could have been done by someone without the scientific knowledge.” To use words from the Artistic Director Mark Baldwin, Nicky has given “intense educational input into [the] choreography” at Rambert ever since. Meanwhile, she tours the world with The Captured Thought. She and her tango partner often talk about “prospective flexibility – something that applies to both memory and dance. Memory is made for the future.” In Professor Nicky Clayton, art and science are inextricable.

Of course, leading two lives makes for a busy schedule. In passing, Nicky mentions recent work in the Tate Modern and in New Zealand, and still more upcoming trips to Plymouth, Michigan and New York. Some trips are to give lectures on her area of expertise, the mentality of corvids. Others are with The Captured Thought, to perform and inspire, in venues that range from galleries to psychiatry conferences. It must be hard to pin down what ‘a typical working week’ looks like, but Nicky gives it a shot. “Things are fluid – there are manuscripts to write and to comment on, there are meetings about experiments, there is the boring answering of emails that we all have to do.” Here and there, she choreographs for Rambert, and runs tango workshops. Does she spend much time at the aviary with the jays and the rooks? “Not as much as I would like.”

Today, only two of the 25 California scrub-jays that moved with her to Cambridge – the stars of the paper on episodic-like memory – are still alive. “But,” Nicky tells me, “for an 80g bird to live that long is a remarkable feat.” At the beginning of her career, when the scrub-jays of Davis, California were still far away, Nicky could not have known the importance of the paradigm shifts that her lifelong interest in birds would lead to. “Part of science is to look at unknowns. The fascination is getting these puzzles. It’s not about showing how clever a jay, a rook, a jackdaw is, but about looking at the pattern of similarities and differences. We learn more from errors or mistakes than from positive successes. In tango, there is a motto: where mistakes become moves.” Professor, ‘bird nerd’, dancer – there is incredible depth to the woman before me, curled up on the sofa with her cup of coffee.

Laura Nunez-Mulder is a 3rd year Medic at Emmanuel College, currently reading Part II Psychology. Artwork by Hayley Hardstaff