Case study: Professor Nicola Clayton FRS

Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge

“When you become an ‘expert’ over ten or more years, you become very focussed. This is great for detail but you can struggle to explain it to a broader audience. Collaborations with artists provide inspiration and help you regain the big picture.”

I am fascinated by birds’ memories and mannerisms as well as how humans think with and without words. In psychology, comparative cognition means comparing nonhuman animals to humans. I study birds from the corvid (crow) family and pre-verbal children to understand how, without words, they can remember the past and imagine the future – a concept known as ‘mental time travel’.

My other passion is dance, which I explore as a form of non-verbal communication with choreographer Mark Baldwin OBE. I am the first Scientist in Residence at the dance company Rambert, and my dance background helps me devise experiments based on movement. I also collaborate with artist and writer Professor Clive Wilkins on The Captured Thought to explore communication without words through dance and art, and to demonstrate cognitive roadblocks that lead to illusion using magic.

To study behaviour and cognition you need to know your animal really well. The scientific part is thinking up hypotheses and what to measure, for example observing where birds store and search for food. The creative part is designing experiments that tap into birds’ cognitive talents through their natural behaviours, and finding questions that birds’ natural behaviour can answer directly.

To study subjective memory in animals in the absence of words, you can’t ask them if they had a good day. You have to think about what you could test to engage those cognitive processes. Transferrable skills are the most important thing. By combining two really different fields, like psychology and dance, you realise new ways to present material and ask questions.

I went to Montgomery High School, a comprehensive in Blackpool, and was always interested in sciences and arts. Public speaking competitions taught me to communicate with confidence, and I’ve danced salsa, tango and ballet throughout my life.

My school suggested I apply to Oxford but nobody in my family had been to Oxford or Cambridge. I had no idea what colleges to apply for so looked for those that might have something to do with birds. I read Zoology but also attended Psychology lectures, and my research project was on memory interference – much more psychology than zoology. At the University of St Andrews, I did a PhD in zebra finch birdsong before returning to Oxford as a post-doc, then to University California Davis for my first permanent job. In 2000, I was invited to apply for the job in Cambridge and the rest is history.