Animal minds

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 23, 2013 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

Lynne Malcolm:  Hi Lynne Malcolm with you for All in the Mind and today a glimpse into the inner world of animals.

Irene Pepperberg:  Alex, how many?

Alex:  Two.

Irene Pepperberg:  That’s right, you’re a good boy.

Alex: Can I go back?

Irene Pepperberg:  No you can’t go back yet.

Alex:  Can I have some water?

Irene Pepperberg:  You want some water, or are you just asking to interrupt? I know.

Alex: Go back?.

Irene Pepperberg:  Hey look, can you tell me, on the tray, how many green blocks?

Alex: Two.

Irene Pepperberg:  Good parrot. Two green block. Two. Good parrot.

Lynne Malcolm:  The late African Grey parrot Alex with his friend and researcher Irene Pepperberg.  And more about the famous talking parrot later.

Most of us, particularly if we have pets, intuitively know that animals think and feel. But science is now telling us more about how these cognitive and emotional processes occur.  And evidence is emerging that sophisticated minds are not confined to the animals we most closely identify with.

Today we’ll hear about ants that teach, rats that giggle, elephants that mourn, chimps that deceive and dogs who just want to be close to us.

Virginia Morell: I had a number of experiences that I think many of us have had, first watching my own pets and seeing things that they did, that just made me wonder what was going on in their minds.  Is it simply just stimulus as response as we were taught pretty much in the last century?

Lynne Malcolm:  Science journalist and author Virginia Morell.  She’s travelled to field sites and laboratories around the world speaking with pioneering animal cognition researchers to find out what they know about the minds of our fellow creatures.

The experience which really inspired her was when she was in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania with the legendary primatologist Jane Goodall.  They observed a deceitful little chimpanzee called Dilly cheat Beethoven, her male elder.

Virginia Morell:  He was given a bunch of bananas by Jane and he didn’t share any of these with little Dilly, who was an orphan, and this larger chimp male was taking care of her. But when he got all of these bananas he just didn’t share a single one of them with poor little hungry Dilly.  And then Dilly happened to look up and she saw Jane was still standing in the window of this shed where she hands out bananas occasionally to the chimpanzees, and she noticed that Jane had held up a single banana. And Beethoven had gone to sleep at this point with his belly so full of fruit and so it was just a look exchanged between Jane and Dilly. And Dilly seemed to understand at once that that banana was meant for her and she was to keep quiet about it.  Normally when chimpanzees see food they make all sorts of food cries, those large pant hoots of excitement and certainly Beethoven had when Jane showed him the bunch of bananas she gave him; he just let the whole forest know.

But little Dilly—mum’s the word, she didn’t make a peep and Jane put the banana outside the feeding station and Dilly just tiptoed over to it, got the banana, sat down with her back to Beethoven who was snoring at this point and she downed that banana in about three bites and then she tiptoed back and started grooming  Beethoven again.  You know I don’t know how she erased the banana breath that she might have had afterwards but she completely fooled him and didn’t give him any kind of sign whatsoever that she had gotten one banana from Jane.  So that kind of experience you know when I said to Jane afterwards my goodness, how remarkable to see a chimpanzee plan something like that and deceive another chimpanzee and are you going to write about that. 

And she said no, she couldn’t because at that time in the late 1980s scientists were still talking about animals very much as if they were kind of machines.  Something happened, it was a stimulus, there was a response, so in this case the stimulus was the banana.  Theoretically the response should have been a pant-hoot, a food cry, but you know she had enough mental flexibility to not do that. But at the same time scientists weren’t really  prepared to say what it was Dilly was doing, and so rather than just coming right out and saying Dilly deceived Beethoven or cheated him or something…using any kind of word that showed intention on Dilly’s part was something Jane wasn’t allowed to do was what she told me and she said the only way I can write about it is to say well, if Dilly was a human we would say oh, she deceived Beethoven or she could write it seemed as if Dilly had deceived Beethoven. But she couldn’t come right out and say that Dilly had any intentions, or thoughts, or purposes of her own.

And I found that just remarkable, and Jane told me well the field is changing you know, it’s getting more of an evolutionary biology perspective and in time I think we’ll be able to be more direct about these things.  I just began to follow the field from that time.

Lynne Malcolm:  In this field the temptation to anthropomorphise is so strong, isn’t it, were scientists that you met mindful of that?

Virginia Morell:  Every scientist I spoke to it was constantly on their minds. And certainly the field when it first really got underway, with observations and books that Charles Darwin published and some of his protégés followed up, his kind of research looking at animals or collecting anecdotes about animals and reporting on things that they did or emotions they might have felt—that was what sort of put the fields into disrepute for a number of years. And then went through this very rigorous time of well we’re not going to think that animals had any thoughts or emotions, we’re just going to simply observe their behaviour.  And that was what took place through much of the 20th century until scientists said well this is all very well and good but what else can we say beyond the fact that they’re stimulus response machines. And certainly there’s more going on inside an animal when we see something like what Dilly did than what we’re able to report.

So how can we go about addressing these questions in a way that gets us inside their minds?  And some of them, especially Donald Griffin who had discovered echolocation in bats, he came up with the idea that well, if we went back to Darwin’s basic idea which is that not only physically and physiologically did we evolve but we had to have evolutionary routes for our mental and emotional abilities too.  So if we put that kind of framework around these questions we might have a better way to proceed in investigating animal minds.  So where do we see the origins of things such as mathematics, or language, or teaching, or emotions such as grief and love, are we going to see anything similar in the animal kingdom?

Lynne Malcolm: Virginia Morell’s investigation began with ants.  She met up with Nigel Franks at the University of Bristol in England; he was studying how rock ants organise their society.

Virginia Morell:  Now they’re very willing to move house and so as he studied that willingness for them to move to another home he realised that the way that they brought the other ants to the new home involved a form of, well it involved teaching which just seems truly remarkable.  It’s because these ants don’t follow chemical trails, they have to memorise their routes and so a scout who finds a new home leads another ant to that house by letting her follow the scout, and as she follows the scout she learns landmarks.  It would be as if you’re walking down the streets of Sydney or New York and you’re memorising all the buildings along the way, all these vertical landmarks.  That’s what these little tiny ants with their miniscule neurons are doing. So he [Nigel Franks] was able to show that this kind or memorisation, route learning that the pupil ant had to do involved basically a kind of teaching by the scout ant.

He wrote about it for a paper that was published in Nature so you know it wasn’t shoddy science by any means and it prompted the human psychologists to respond by redefining the definition of teaching. Now that’s usually what happens, people say oh my goodness you know the animals can do what we do so we have to make, you know build the wall a little higher, put another brick up there to keep them out. But evolutionary biologists responded by saying no, no, we really shouldn’t redefine teaching, we have this excellent definition that’s been around for 20 years so why don’t we see what the ants do and maybe some other species do something similar and from that we can see the kind of environmental pressures on these particular species.

So they found meerkats and birds called social babblers and the ants, and probably a number of others that they’re looking at now, all do something that could be explained as teaching according to the old definition.  And then it becomes really interesting; you can say well under these situations, or in this kind of society, or living in this habitat something like teaching may emerge because of the pressures of natural selection.  And so it explains to us why teaching evolved at all, you know what is the reason for it?

Lynne Malcolm:  And now to bird brains.

Irene Pepperberg:  Hey look, can you tell me, on the tray, how many green blocks?

Alex: Two.

Irene Pepperberg:  Good parrot, two green blocks, two.

Lynne Malcolm:  Virginia Morell was lucky enough to meet Alex the African Grey parrot in 2006 a couple of years before he passed away.  Alex’s accomplishments documented by US animal researcher and psychologist Irene Pepperberg support the idea that birds have some reasoning powers and parrots not only imitate human language but can also use it creatively.  Some people have been critical of the work because Irene Pepperberg was using a very small sample size and Alex was born and raised in captivity; but there’s no doubt that Alex was a star and Virginia Morell was excited about meeting him.

Virginia Morell:  It’s early morning, he’s sort of grooming himself, he’s kind of in a bad mood she told me because he’s moulting and I guess birds don’t feel at the best when they’re losing their feathers that way, and so he just looked up at her and instantly his beak opened and he said ‘want grape’ in this really sweet little voice you know, ‘want grape’ it was kind of creaky, and I just thought well he certainly has an opinion and he’s going to express and demand.  And so he wanted a grape and he wanted wheat, so they got him his breakfast and then after that they started working with some of the other parrots and she gave him this little toy block that was painted brown, chocolate brown, and he would hold that up and as she and the others were doing various things, he would hold this little chocolate block up and his beak would open and he said ‘tell me what colour?’  And you know that was the last thing I expected, she hadn’t told me anything about what to expect so I was just watching and ‘tell me what colour?’ and so Irene, she had two assistants, they said in singsong unison ‘brown Alex, the colour is brown.’ And he would sort of try that, he had to listen fairly hard and then figure out a way to use his vocal chords to imitate that sound.  And so he would ask again, ‘What colour?’ and he’d show everybody this little coloured block and he was also working on the number seven. He would say ‘one’ and Irene would say oh, that’s so good Alex, good job. 

So I finally asked her what on earth is Alex doing, and she said well, he’s practising, that’s how he learns these words, that’s his job.  But by doing that she had taught Alex enough words that she could ask him questions about how birds or these parrots, or a parrot named Alex sees the world.  So she could hold up say a green key and a green cup to his eye and she’d ask a question.  ‘What’s same?’ You know, what is the same thing about these two things that I’m showing you? And Alex said ‘Colour’ and ‘How different?’  ‘Shape.’ So she was able to show that this bird had an understanding of abstract concepts and probably most birds do.

I mean you can’t absolutely extrapolate from one to another but certainly parrots should have that ability, given the number of things we know they’re capable of.  And then to me or perhaps the final demonstration of mind inside Alex’s little bird brain was when she was working with another parrot who was having troubles saying the word green, and Alex just said ‘Talk clearly, talk clearly’.

Lynne Malcolm:  Wow.

Virginia Morell:  That was just truly remarkable.  Meeting Alex was a complete treat.

Lynne Malcolm:  Yeah, and it’s a very moving story about what Alex said to Irene Pepperberg the night before he died, isn’t it?

Virginia Morell:  Yes, he said he wanted to see her the next day, ‘You’ll be in tomorrow?’ ‘Yes.’ And he said ‘I love you,’ and she said ‘Yes, I love you and see you tomorrow,’ as they always said goodnight to each other.  But he died that night. She told me later how much she realised that she’d truly loved Alex. And I saw that. When he asked her to take him outside the lab to the hallway where he could see an elm tree through the window, a leafy tree, and this green light and he asked ‘Wanna go tree.’ And so she took him out there and as they walked down the hall, because she’d been a little cross with him and had scolded him, he sort of wanted to make up and he said to her ‘Good boy, good birdie,’ and she said ‘Yes, you’re a good boy, good birdie.’ And she kissed him on top of his head and it was that moment I’ve just never forgotten watching the two of them walk down the hallway into that light and the green light of the tree and I just thought that’s a world Alex never knew, he could see glimpses of it but he was born in captivity in a pet shop and his life was a life inside, with humans.

Lynne Malcolm:  Virginia Morell, author of Animal Wise: the thoughts and emotions of our Fellow Creatures.

You’re listening to All in the Mind on RN, Radio Australia and online, I’m Lynne Malcolm, today exploring the minds of animals.

Have you ever thought about whether animals have a sense of humour?  Virginia Morell visited neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University in Pullman who, at the beginning of his career, began studying happiness in humans.  Funding was difficult to come by so he changed his focus to a study of depression, using lab rats as subjects.  He needed both happy and sad rats.  So how did he make a rat happy?

Virginia Morell:  Well he discovered early on it was really simple, you just let young rats play together and they were happy.  When I watched the rats in his lab playing together, rolling and tumbling and wrestling and jumping on each other it was just like watching little puppies.  So as he watched them it occurred to him that they must be emitting some sound as they played, because their mouths were often open, but the sound was probably beyond our hearing.  And so he put a bat detector in one day and discovered there were these little high-pitched sounds and he recorded these, he analysed them and he showed that yes, they had the same quality as a human laugh or a chimpanzee laugh, there’s a certain breathy way of laughing that determines that a particular sound an animal makes is a laugh, and so he discovered that rats laugh. 

Well so what is the advantage to that of having laughter or play or those sort of social behaviours? And he then went on to show that rats that didn’t play together—say you had a male rat who had played and a male rat who hadn’t played and a female comes onto the scene.  Well which fellow is she going to want?  It’s certainly not going to be the guy without a sense of humour. She wants the one who knows how to control his emotions and has some fun in life, she wants the happy guy.

Lynne Malcolm:  And you also had the peculiar experience of tickling a rat to make it laugh.

Virginia Morell:  I did, it was really fun.  You know as Jaak Panksepp the researcher was showing me how he could make a rat laugh and how once a rat realised that a hand could tickle him the rat enjoyed that sensation so much of being tickled—because they actually do have tickle-skin just as we do—the rat will chase your hand around like a little bin that he put them in, and they seek that pleasure, that joyfulness. So Jaak said what you do is you don’t pat him, don’t stroke him, just get him on the sides a little bit with your fingers and on the neck and then he’ll start to laugh and he’ll seek out your hand. And he did, you know yes, I did tickle a rat and I made a rat laugh, I can put that on my list of accomplishments.

Lynne Malcolm:  One of the more striking findings in animal neuroscience in recent years is that elephants, whales and great apes all possess a particular kind of brain cell called von Economo cells, once thought only to be found in humans.  These spindle shaped neurons are said to make us human because they’re connected to our feelings of love, empathy and social awareness.  So what significance does this have to the ability of animals to experience different emotions?  Virginia Morell.

Virginia Morell:  Well there’s a lot of thinking about what causes us to have the emotions that we have and how do we emphasise with other people.  You know it’s a key part of our development as children is to reach a stage where we are able to picture ourselves as the other being and to realise that when someone else gets cut or injured or something they feel pain just as we would.  And that’s a very key milestone in the development of children. So the question has always been well do other animals go through similar stages.  And you know you get some hints about that from various things such as these mirror tests where animals look in a mirror and if they recognise themselves then it’s thought that well probably they also have some empathy for others because they see themselves as an individual so they must realise that others are separate from them.

But how do we really know, and can we see something within the brain that would show us?  So when the first von Economo cells were discovered it was thought well this explains how we do it, how we look at another person and we experience what they’re experiencing or we watch a program on TV or a movie or something and we have that sensation, or we read a book or a novel and we put ourselves into the character’s place, it’s probably by using these mirror neuron cells, where we look at the image and we make a corresponding image in our own brains but with ourselves as the character. 

So then they started discovering them in the brains of other animals so the question now is well where exactly is the cut-off?  And you hear that well now they have found them in elephants, which makes a great deal of sense because those animals as anyone I think who has watched any wildlife programs—if you have seen those images of say a mother elephant or herd of elephants trying to rescue a baby elephant that’s slipped into a mud hole.  Or you know when they all get together and they chase lions off, or the most affecting of course are when elephants try to raise a dying companion or they stand together over a dead elephant’s body, or they investigate the bones of a dead elephant. It’s impossible not to think that those animals are feeling something akin to our form of grief.

And again you know scientists don’t want to come out and say oh, it’s exactly like us, they don’t want to anthropomorphise. But because the elephants have these mirror neuron cells like ours, it may be much closer to our emotional feelings than we ever would have guessed.  And now the question is well how many animals have these cells, or precursors to these cells, because they are going to have an evolutionary past and they could be very, very useful, especially for animals who live in social situations.  So I think it’s still a very open question as to how who has them, how universal they are, I just expect there are going to be more species that will be discovered to have them than we expect right now.  Because it always turns out to be like that. That was another thing I found as I wrote my book was that every time we draw a line in the sand and say no, we humans have this ability, no-one else does, then within a month you know it seems sometimes someone comes along and says oh I just saw an animal who does just that.

So I think the main thing we forget in all this is and I don’t mean any offence to anyone but we are animals too, and so all of the things that we do have a biological history to them.  To me that’s really wonderful and by looking at these other species, everything from fish to ants to birds and dogs and dolphins and elephants we may get a better idea about our own abilities, the origins of them.

Lynne Malcolm:  The final chapter in your book you focus on dogs and wolves and the outstanding thing about dogs is, and they are pets to many of us of course, is their ability to understand human communication and the incredibly close bond human beings have with dogs.  What does that tell us?

Virginia Morell:  What we’ve done is we’ve brought another animal’s mind into our lives and we’ve brought dogs into our lives because we want to use their minds alongside our own in various situations—whether it’s just pure friendship or it’s a working relationship, or it’s to help us rescue people, the more I think about it it’s one of those things that just makes you just sort of catch your breath and wonder,  because we’ve chosen them because we want to make use of their minds.  And in other ways we’ve done sort of the same thing with cats and horses but nothing to the degree that we’ve done with dogs.  They really are our pals and want to be with us, which is perhaps the most amazing thing about them, that they will choose us over another dog, or being with a dog-like animal, they will choose the human. We are their environmental niche if you will, you know that’s where they belong is in the human jungle as someone put it.

Lynne Malcolm:  I don’t know about you but I’m sure I’ve seen a dog look guilty after breaking house rules.  Could it be that animals have a moral sense, or feelings such as guilt or shame?

Virginia Morell:  Most of these sorts of questions have been asked only with dogs. It’s rather difficult to assess that in animals in the wild, but certainly a lot of us suspect that our dogs feel guilt, or shame.  Especially when you come home and oh, oh you know your prized pet, your beloved pal has torn up the couch, or done something even worse. And your dog looks at you and hangs his head and looks so guilty, so we wonder well is he really feeling guilty or is that just an expression that he’s learned to make because he knows we’re going to give a stern expression to him so he makes a kind of sad face back.  And there have been various attempts to address that and to answer whether the dog actually feels guilty or not. 

The most recent study suggests that if the dog doesn’t completely feel guilty as we do, they feel something like guilt in a sense that they realise that what they’ve done is liable to result in some punishment. And that may be what they’re most afraid of is the punishment from you.  And it doesn’t have to be physical, it can just be the look of displeasure on your face.  But it’s a precursor to feeling the feelings that we have of guilt. That to me is very intriguing because it shows how the fully developed sense of guilt that we have, why it develops, you know where it comes from.  The other feelings that animals have you mentioned shame;  that’s one that unless you’re thinking of it as a synonym for guilt, Charles Darwin felt that the animals don’t feel embarrassment or shame, he thought that was something that was peculiar to humans and I don’t know that we actually have reports of it in other animals.

I think that there is a moral dimension, an ethical dimension to our knowledge now that scientists have acquired about animals being sentient beings, that they have thoughts, that their neurons are firing and that they are not simply responding to stimulus, that that they actually make decisions, they have flexibility in their cognitive understanding of the world, and that there’s an emotional side to them as well. You know we know for ourselves that emotions and rational thinking go hand in hand; there are not two separate pathways in the brain for these two things that can sometimes seem so different.  But one guides the other. I read somewhere that you cannot even make a decision to choose between various coloured candies if you have some emotional deficit.  So if you’re going to be a good decision maker you’re going to have an emotional part of your brain working as well, and that’s true for the animals.

So once we know this, once we have this knowledge that these scientists have gone out into the field and into their laboratories and discovered for us that we’re surrounded by a world of animal minds and animals who are thinking and feeling and experiencing the world; what should our response be?  I’m not advocating that everyone turn into a vegetarian, or that we no longer use animals, especially domesticated animals, for our various purposes, but we should certainly take into consideration the fact that they are thinking and feeling beings and we need to provide those that we use with the best lives that they can possibly have in those circumstances.

Personally for me—because I write a great deal about conservation, biology and environmental issues for Science and National Geographic—my larger concern was recognising that if animals have all of these feelings and thoughts and emotions and these relationships with others within their family groups or societies, then we really should find a way to make it possible for them to have enough habitat to exist.  We are living at this time of the sixth extinction, we are in a time of great global climate change, we know this is adversely affecting many species; are there things that we can do to help them overcome these challenges that not only we humans face but animals face as well.  We know also that many animals are being terribly poached, in the case of the elephants for their tusks and in other cases black bears for their bile, their liver bile; can we come to some international agreements that will actually stop these sorts of human behaviours that are so adversely affecting these animal populations.

To me, losing these minds, if we continue to push elephants as we are, killing them off, we will lose them, they are close to the verge of extinction, there are something like only half a million left if that many.  Less than 100 years ago there were something like 2 million elephants; to me it is such a staggering loss to think that we will someday not have elephants and their minds on this planet. And it’s not just the elephants, but every animal that faces this kind of threat. That’s what I would like people to pause for a moment to think about the fact that there are animals on this planet, that they have minds, they have feelings and emotions, that is something we should be celebrating and doing our upmost to help them stay with us.

Lynne Malcolm:  Virginia Morell, her book Animal Wise: the Thoughts and Emotions of our Fellow creatures is published by Black Inc.

Go to the website at and choose the All in the Mind page for more details on today’s show.  You can catch the past programs there too or sign up for the All in the Mind podcast if you haven’t done it yet.

Today’s sound engineer is Simon Braithwaite.  I’m Lynne Malcolm, thanks for joining me and catch you next week at the same time.

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