A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is it true an elephant never forgets?

June 12, 1987

Dear Cecil:

While watching TV the other night I saw a commercial that repeated the old saying, "an elephant never forgets." Never forgets what? Is it true pachyderms have unparalleled powers of recollection?

Cecil replies:

You will be happy to know, Carlos, this being the age of science and all, that the claims made for elephants and their memories have been subjected to rigorous analysis. In an experiment reported in 1957, Professor B. Rensch of Munster University in Germany attempted to teach a five-year-old Asiatic elephant to differentiate between two wooden boxes, one marked with a square, the other with a circle. The former contained food, the latter nothing. The elephant, obviously no Einstein, needed 330 tries before it grasped the concept. Different pairs of symbols were then used, with the elephant making (for an elephant) remarkable progress. By the time the fourth pair rolled around, the elephant needed only 10 tries before he figured out where the food was, and by the 20th, he had it down solid.

Professor Rensch then bided his time for a year, following which he subjected the hapless elephant to further tests with 13 of the original pairs. On all except one (the toughest), the elephant scored between 73 and 100 percent correct. From this the professor concluded that while elephants were not what you could call quick, once you got an idea pounded into them, it was well nigh impossible to get it out again.

This finding generally accords with the experience of elephant trainers. With patience--a lot of patience--elephants can be taught an amazing array of tricks, ranging from the mundane perching on a ball to such feats as driving a jeep and playing cricket ... tasks that don't necessarily require a ton of brains, just determination. Maybe next we should have them try balancing the federal budget.

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