Do Elephants Have Good Memory?

Elephants often get praise for their impressive memory. It’s commonly known they can remember events from their past a year later. However, do elephants really have superior memory, or is this another common myth? Memory is complex. Should “good memory” be defined as remembering many different things all at once, or one thing for a long time? Additionally, why would an elephant need to have a good memory?

Elephant stares down camera
Elephant stares down camera, Credit: Flickr/ "elephant ears." by brittanyhock is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Table of Contents

How are memories formed?

If a brain is a filing cabinet, then memories are papers to store and track. Forming a memory has three basic steps: encoding, storage, and retrieval. This essentially means the brain learns a new piece of information, retains the information, and recalls the information at a later date. Encoding is similar to writing needed information on a piece of paper. Storage is analogous to putting the paper in the appropriate location. Retrieval is like taking the file from the cabinet when needed.

If the files were randomly thrown into the cabinet, it would be difficult to access the right file at the right time. To prevent this, files can be categorized in folders based on features such as subject, date, and relevance. In a similar way, our brains store memories in relevant categories. This is why a certain movie may always make you think of the person you first watched it with: your brain categorizes the memory of that person and the memory of the movie together. While the memories formed by elephants and people may be different, the process of forming a memory shares these same basic steps!

What is Encoding?

Every day our brain processes hundreds, if not thousands, of different sights, sounds, smells, and feelings. These experiences are called sensory information. In order to remember sensory information later, it must be encoded in the brain. Encoding means the brain changes the sensory information into a memory.

Elephants have a very large olfactory lobe, which is the region of the brain which processes smells. As a result, elephants are more likely to encode sensory information from their sense of smell. The region of the brain that encodes the sensory information into a memory is the hippocampus. The hippocampus in elephants is highly developed, which contributes to elephants‘ incredible memory.

Important structures of the brain involved in memory
Important structures of the brain involved in memory, Credit : Flickr.com/ "Illustration of brain regions" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0

What is Storage?

Once the brain encodes sensory information into memory, it must store this memory somewhere. Memories are initially stored as short-term memory. Short-term memory only lasts an average of 15–30 seconds in humans. The brain converts some memories to long-term memory. Long-term memory has a huge storage capacity, and can last for years.

The brains of converting sensory information to short and long term memory
The brains of converting sensory information to short and long term memory, Credit: Smore Science

Elephants excel in long-term memory. Elephants can remember an experience from when they were a baby throughout their whole life. Elephants have some of the largest brains in the animal kingdom, so their cerebral cortex is also very large. The cerebral cortex is the region of the brain where memories are stored. This helps enable the remarkable long-term memory in elephants.

Number of neurons in an elephant brain compared to other mammals
Number of neurons in an elephant brain compared to other mammals, Credit: Wikimedia/Brain size comparison - Brain neurons (billions) by Peter Aldhous is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

What is Retrieval?

In order to be able to access a memory later on, the brain must be able to retrieve the memory from its storage location. The brain retrieves short-term memory in the order it was stored; for example, the digits of a phone number, or a to-do list. Long-term memory is retrieved by associations.

 

Certain smells, sounds, or sights may be powerful cues to retrieve long-term memories.

 

For example, a blizzard may cause you to think of a childhood Christmas where everyone was snowed in. Elephants can retrieve memories from decades prior. The most powerful trigger for an elephant to retrieve a memory is scent.

What Do Elephants Remember?

While elephants have incredible long-term memory, they cannot remember every experience throughout their life. Both human and elephant brains have a limit on the amount of information they can encode, store, and retrieve. Going back to the filing cabinet metaphor, eventually the cabinet fills up. In order to ensure there is space for the most important files, some must be discarded. This is why we often forget moments from childhood or many years ago.

 

As time goes on, if a memory is not retrieved the brain deems it less important, so the memory is discarded. However, memories that are retrieved more often are deemed more important by the brain, so we become less likely to forget them. The more times a memory is accessed, the easier it will be to keep accessing it.

How Does Memory Help Elephants Survive?

Elephants use long-term memory for survival. The memories they hold on to for decades are likely memories that provide knowledge on how to survive specific scenarios. For example, in a drought, elephants need to move to a better feeding ground. An elephant that remembers the location of a better feeding ground from years earlier can lead the herd to safety.

Can Elephants Remember Their Family?

Elephants form strong bonds with their herd. Herds of elephants are often closely related to each other, and include grandparents, aunts, siblings, etc. Specifically, female elephants often stay with the same herd their entire life. Male elephants spend more of their life alone, but when they encounter their previous herd, most often they remain friendly. Herds make it easier for elephants to protect offspring, locate resources, and defend against predators. As a result, remembering their herd provides a survival advantage.

Family of elephants in South Africa Credit: Flickr.com/"Elephant family" by Colin the Scot is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Elephants can recognize their family members after decades of separation. After being shown bones and tusks from deceased elephants, elephants reacted strongest to those from a member of their herd. This suggests they recognized and remembered family members even years after they had passed.

 

So, do elephants have good memories? The short answer is yes. The longer answer depends on how you define “good memory.” Elephants excel in long-term memory, but their short-memory is less noteworthy. Additionally, a strong long-term memory does not mean elephants remember everything, but instead that they encode and store sensory information important to their survival.

Glossary

Encoding: Changing sensory information to information the brain can store

 

Storage: Ability to retain information in the brain

 

Retrieval: Accessing memories stored the brain

 

Long-Term Memory: Memories that last days, months, or years

 

Short-Term Memory: Small amount of information easily accessible for a brief period of time

 

Hippocampus: Region of the brain responsible for encoding and storing memories

 

Cerebral Cortex: Outermost region of the brain responsible for many different functions including memory storage and retrieval

Anand KS, Dhikav V. Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2012 Oct;15(4):239–46. doi: 10.4103/0972-2327.104323. PMID: 23349586; PMCID: PMC3548359.

 

Hart BL, Hart LA, Pinter-Wollman N. Large brains and cognition: where do elephants fit in? Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):86–98. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.05.012. Epub 2007 Jun 6. PMID: 17617460.

 

“How Memory Works.” Derek Bok Center, Harvard University, Harvard University, 2022, https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/how-memory-works.

 

Markowitz H, Schmidt M, Nadal L, Squier L. Do elephants ever forget? J Appl Behav Anal. 1975 Fall;8(3):333–5. doi: 10.1901/jaba.1975.8-333. PMID: 1184496; PMCID: PMC1311860.

 

Patzke N, Olaleye O, Haagensen M, Hof PR, Ihunwo AO, Manger PR. Organization and chemical neuroanatomy of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) hippocampus. Brain Struct Funct. 2014 Sep;219(5):1587–601. doi: 10.1007/s00429-013-0587-6. Epub 2013 Jun 2. PMID: 23728481.

 

Robertson LT. Memory and the brain. J Dent Educ. 2002 Jan;66(1):30–42. PMID: 12358099.

 

Trembley, Daniel K., et al. “Psych 256: Cognitive Psychology SP15.” Psych 256 Cognitive Psychology SP15, Pennsylvania State University, 8 Mar. 2015, https://sites.psu.edu/psych256sp15/2015/03/08/specificity-encoding-long-term-memory-and-elephants/#:~:text=The%20scientists%E2%80%99%20conclusion%20is%20that%20conscious%20decision%20making,of%20time%2C%20is%20why%20the%20elephant%20is%20relocating.

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


Join 20,000+ parents and educators
To get the FREE science digest in your inbox!

Author

  • Erin Kelley

    Erin graduated magna cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute(RPI) with a Bachelor's degree in Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology, and earned a Master’s of Science in Biochemistry & Biophysics from RPI. She loves writing for Smore Science because it allows her to share her passion for science with a large audience! Erin competed for RPI’s Varsity Cross Country & Track team and was even the team captain. At RPI she researched genetically modified E.Coli for vaccine development. Erin explored many career interests in college, and she currently works as a biologist, but also loves chemistry, computer science, & environmental science.