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Dr Damian Scarf Research Interests

Damian Scarf

Tel 64 3 479 7636
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Mental time travel in children

Mental time travel refers to our ability to travel forward and backward in time, providing us the opportunity to re-experience events from our past and to consider events that have not yet taken place. At present, little is known about when children develop the ability to reflect on a past event and use that memory to anticipate and plan for an upcoming event. The reason for the dearth of studies is that existing paradigms rely on verbal reports. Recently, a nonverbal test of episodic memory was developed and we employ variations of this test to assess the planning abilities of children as young as 3 years of age.

Delay of gratification

Children’s ability to delay gratification when they are 4 years of age is related to their health, wealth, and level of criminal offending when they are adults. Despite its importance, little is known about the decision making process young children employ when making delay of gratification decisions, such as choosing between a small reward that they can receive immediately and a larger reward that they will receive after a delay. Recently, we developed a paradigm that helps children to delay gratification. Currently we are investigating how this new paradigm impacts upon children’s decision making process and whether it relates to other abilities thought to be involved in delaying gratification (eg, mental time travel, inhibition, executive function, etc.).

Neurobiology of ordinal knowledge in pigeons

Ordinal knowledge refers to the ability to encode the rank (eg, first, second, third, etc.) of each item in a sequence. Our recent behavioural research has demonstrated that, when pigeons learn a list of items, they encode each item’s ordinal position. On the basis of this behavioural evidence we have hypothesised that neurons, in certain areas of the pigeons’ brain, encode specific ordinal positions. Using a combination of electrophysiological recording and lesion work, we are in the process of identifying the brain areas involved and uncovering how the neurons in these areas code ordinal position.

Future endeavours

We currently have two exciting research projects we are in the early stages of setting up. One project will investigate the cognitive abilities of parrots, including kea, kaka, and cockatoos. This project is being set up in collaboration with the Dunedin Botanic Garden Aviary. The second project will use small Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to track pigeons as they home over hundreds of kilometres. This project is being set up in collaboration with the Department of Physics.


Scarf, D., & Colombo, M. Knowledge of the ordinal position of list items in pigeons. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, In press.

Scarf, D., Terrace, H.S., & Colombo, M. (2011). Planning abilities of monkeys. In Monkeys: Biology, Behavior, and Disorders. New York: Nova Science Publishers (pp. 137-150).

Scarf, D., Danly, E., Morgan, G., Colombo, M., & Terrace, H. (2011). Sequential planning in rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta). Animal Cognition, 14, 317-324.

Scarf, D., Miles, K., Sloan, A., Seid-Fatemi, A., Goulter, N., Harper, D., & Colombo, M. Brain cells in the avian 'prefrontal cortex' code for features of slot-machine-like gambling. PLoS ONE, 6, 1-7.

Scarf, D., & Colombo, M. (2010) Representation of Serial Order in Pigeons (Columba livia). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 36, 423-429.

Scarf, D., & Colombo, M. (2010). A positional coding mechanism in pigeons after learning multiple three item lists. Animal Cognition, 13, 653-661.

Scarf, D., & Colombo, M. (2010). The formation and execution of sequential plans in pigeons (Columba livia). Behavioral Processes, 83, 179-182.

Scarf, D., & Colombo, M. (2009). Eye movements during list execution reveal no planning in monkeys (Macaca fascicularis). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 35, 587-592.

Scarf, D., & Colombo, M. (2008). Representation of serial order: A comparative analysis of humans, monkeys, and pigeons. Brain Research Bulletin, 76, 308-312.