Memory Like An Elephant — Is it an Urban Myth?

A person who has a great memory is often referred to as having the “memory of an elephant.” But, does an elephant really have a great memory or that just another myth. If it does, how does the memory of an elephant correspond to the memory of a human?

It is hard to look at all the evidence that elephants have a great memory without making the mistake of giving the animal human qualities (anthropomorphism). They form attachments, travel in families, recognize relatives they haven’t seen in years, show grief when someone they care about passes away, and can show compassion for other animals. One example: Elephants were helping some men place large posts in holes to build a fence. One elephant was doing his job well until he came to one hole and held the post over it, refusing to put it in the hole. When his handler looked in the hole to see what was the problem he found a dog sleeping there. After he shooed the dog away the elephant put the post in the hole and continued on with his work.

Like a human, the elephant uses its senses to process information. The main difference is their process through their trunks as much as through their brains. When areas of the brain are enlarged (not just because an elephant has the largest brain but from an overload of neurons it means these areas are used more often than other areas. The elephant has enlarged olfactory lobes (sense of smell); the cerebellum and the temporal lobes of the cerebrum. The neurons are connected to the other parts of the brain through nerve fibers. The cerebellum is related to muscle coordination, and the cerebellum’s “high degree of development is (believed to be) related to the highly coordinated trunk.”

The temporal lobes are usually connected to hearing in mammals (speech in humans), so the elephant’s ability to communicate through various sounds and distinguish between the “voices” of different elephants are connected to the temporal lobes.

Scientists have not been able to precisely measure an elephants’ intelligence, but they are ranked among the smartest in the animal kingdom. The theory of elephants never forgetting is an exaggeration, but doesn’t stray terribly far from the truth. They remember injuries, and hold grudges against their abusers. One example: African elephants react negatively to the sight and scent of clothing worn by members of the Maasai tribe — who show their manhood by spearing elephants.

Elephants form bonds with their family, and the female is the matriarch. During times of drought multiple families will form bonds like an extended family to share resources. They communicate with each other with sounds, and can spatially locate other elephants through bundles of nerve sensors in their feet that send vibrations through the ground into nerve impulses that send messages to the brain. Even their toenails contain nerves that can distinguish where sounds are coming from.

Unlike a human, elephants don’t process every stimulus they experience. Instead they encode what is necessary for survival, such as food location and family identification much the same way we process short-term memory and selectively toss out or transfer data to our long-term memory. Much like the memories that impact our lives the most, elephants functional memories are preserved for future retrieval.

To further show proof that the urban legend about elephant’s memories may be true, watch the video above. This BBC wildlife documentary, titled “Elephant Cave” shows that elephants that were witness to the massacre of their families while they were young refuse to return to the location the massacre occurred, even though the location contained salt that they needed to survive.

My name is Ron White, memory speaker.   I am an expert on memory in humans, but am still fascinated how animals are able to retain memory for long periods of time, and not be similar in processing to human brains.

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Animal Planet — Do Elephants Never Forget?

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