Dolphin Minds – A Conversation

Originally appeared in New Scientist, Dec 27, 2011, here

Enter a dolphin’s fluid, hyper-social consciousness

By Jeff Warren

What would we learn if we could merge parts of the human brain with those of other species? Might we hear the sounds of the past? Live in naked troops, swapping intimate experiences without words? Or build a new social network? Jeff Warren spoke to some experts.

Can we know anything about what it’s like to be a dog, a dolphin, a bat?

NewScientist-dolphin-pieceThe standard response to this was articulated back in 1974 by American philosopher Thomas Nagel in his paper, ”˜What it is like to be a Bat?’. Unlike some of the behaviorist thinkers of that time, who viewed animals as little more than stimulus-response automatons devoid of inner life, Nagel didn’t doubt that bats had some form of experience, that it was “like something” to be a nimble, echolocating mammal swooping through the night sky. But he did doubt our ability to say anything true about that experience that isn’t mere projection or imagination.

Nagel may be right, but I believe the human-to-animal mind question is simply an extreme form of the human-to-human mind question: we can never entirely know another person’s experience especially if they come from a wildly different culture, but there are deep points of overlap that can be expanded. So what are the points of overlap with animals – and how can they be expanded?

One answer may be to compare brains and compare environments. I decided to conduct some thought-experiments via Skype with two of the smartest people I know on the question of brains and non-human consciousness: Lori Marino, a comparative neuro-anatomist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and Ben Goertzel, author, mathematician, pioneering AI researcher, and former research director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence in San Francisco.

NewScientistThe Conversation
JEFF: Imagine that in front of us are the disarticulated brains of three different mammals – a human, a dog, and a dolphin. What might we learn if we were to reassemble these pieces in unusual combinations?

LORI: This is deeply creepy, but it so happens it is not entirely an academic question. Something like this is already going on in biochemical research with the work around chimeras. For example, a couple years ago researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig inserted a human gene into a mouse, which caused it to grow human-like neurons in the language part of its brain. The resulting mouse was different, its vocalizations were deeper.

JEFF: In her book Inside of a Dog, psychologist Alexandra Horowitz talks about how being immersed in a world of layered smells might affect a dog’s sense of time because you have historical smell traces all around.

LORI: When a dog goes for a walk, they can receive stimuli that are remnants of the past because smells hang around. I’ve heard that audition is similar, that if we had a big enough amplifier we could pick up sounds of people that aren’t here anymore, events that have happened in the past – although no animal that I know of has that capacity as far as we can tell.

BEN: For a dog, smell and vision synergize very well together when they are trying to find stuff outside. Whereas for humans, audition and vision tie together, and olfaction not so much. So if you had a mind in which all three senses worked together closely, that would be interesting. Suppose it was possible to paste brain lobes together within some kind of neural growth medium. There is no way to determine what effect this would have – you would probably get nonlinear feedback between lobes that would settle into some unexpected configuration.

JEFF: Yet, at the same time, we know basic brain structures repeat themselves from animal to animal. A dog’s amygdale, say, looks a lot like the human amygdala and there is good evidence that is does many of the same emotional regulation things.

LORI: This is part of the complexity of our task. The brain is not just plug-and-play. If you stick a dog’s big olfactory bulbs on top of the human brain there’s going to be reverberations throughout the levels of the brain to adjust. At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of conservation of function and structure in nervous systems. Once you have a bilaterally-symmetrical animal with a brain – that’s it. Everything else is a variation on the theme. We only do nervous systems one way on this planet and that is interesting.

BEN: There’s another important point here. Like the auditory system, the visual system is largely hierarchical, using linear feed-forward and feed-back connections. Whereas if you look at Berkeley neuroscientist Walter Freeman’s model of the olfactory bulb using nonlinear dynamics, it’s more heterarchical in construction. Activity is more chaotic, with the formation of transient patterns of energy called “strange attractors” and other related structures responding to different recognizable smells.

JEFF: Let’s imagine this nonhierarchical system dominated the whole cortex. How might that be expressed in consciousness, in experience?

BEN: It has to do with breaking things down into parts. The whole process of analysis (breaking into parts) and synthesis (making stuff from parts) is built into the structure of audition and vision. A cognitive system that was based on olfaction wouldn’t be based so much on breaking things down into parts and wholes. More just on completion of patterns, I guess.

There seems to be no system with a high level of general intelligence that’s like that on earth, and there may be a reason for that. It may be that the hierarchical structure is a really useful heuristic for being intelligent. And without it, you don’t get that smart. But then that might be a particular artifact of the environment on the surface of earth. If you believe our theory of physics, hierarchy is wired into the universe, because you’ve got quarks and gluons, then you’ve got particles and atoms and molecules and cells and organisms.

JEFF: So says the hierarchical brain.

BEN: Yeah the hierarchal structure is just innate to the universe, and so of course the brain should be oriented that way too. But on the other hand, maybe that’s only one possible way to understand physics because we have a hierarchy-oriented brain.

JEFF: I want to stay with this idea, because it is a really important one when we talk about higher-level consciousness in animals. One way to get at it is with cetaceans – whales and dolphins. Their huge brains are 30 million years old – that’s about 28 millions years older than our big brains. Except these big brains didn’t evolve on land – they evolved in a totally different medium. Ben, last year you published a fascinating paper with Allan Combs in The Journal of Cosmology that is very relevant here.

BEN: I was trying to understand what a consciousness might be like if it evolved in a fluid environment. You could relate this in a speculative way to the mind of cetaceans, although their situation is not as extreme as what we were positing. I was thinking about the extent to which human psychology is adapted to a world of solid objects. Solid objects are like billiard balls – you get stuff bouncing off other stuff and therefore you get the psychology of causation. You also get Lego blocks and building material so you get hierarchical decomposition of wholes into parts. Things we take for granted in our cognition may be artifacts of adaptation to a world consisting of discrete solid objects.

If you grew up on Jupiter where the environment consists of different fluids of viscosity and different intersecting vortices and solitons, you might have a completely different psychology. The environment would be more chaotic and rapidly changing, where each event – at least compared to our “solid” world – is correlated with multiple possible future and past events. Some kind of phenomenology of flow states would be dominant – it might be less about an agent “willing X” than “flowing in the direction of X.” Also, rather than focusing on building items from components, these organisms might focus instead on creating temporary self-organized patterns within flows of movement.

JEFF: You could say this is one reason the study of cetacean communication may be important.

LORI: This has actually been discussed as an explanation why we still haven’t “cracked” dolphin communication. Human researchers want to develop a whistle repertoire for dolphins and figure out what the whistles mean as discrete sounds, and that has been somewhat fruitful and has hinted that there’s a lot of complexity there. But it could be that we’re going down the wrong path. At her Wild Dolphin Project in Florida, zoologist Denise Herzing is developing some sort of gizmo that will permit genuine two-way communication between dolphins and humans.

JEFF: Flow makes me think of emotion. How does the emotional brain of the dolphin compare to humans?

LORI: In some respects it is more complex. Dolphins and whales have the only brain I know of where, over time, the limbic system has dramatically expanded its connections into the cortex. It has an entire paralimbic lobe that no other animal has, and that’s really interesting.

JEFF: So cetaceans have these large, emotional brains. They also have heavily integrated auditory and visual cortexes that may underlie their amazing echolocation. Some scientists have argued that dolphins and killer and sperm whales may be able to see inside each other’s bodies using echolocation – a bit like ultrasound. A dolphin may know if another dolphin is hungry, sick or pregnant. Plus there is the behavioral data, the amazing synchronicity between dolphins, the way they won’t abandon one another.

BEN: I wonder how the self-model differs between animals. We can sort of get a sense of that across human cultures. Asian cultures to a certain extent, and Stone Age people to an even greater extent will sort of naturally take a more extended view of themselves – they look at the social context over the individual.

I would think that with a dolphin, whatever analogue of its self-model is there would be dramatically different. If you always travelled with the same posse and could see inside them, could see if they were stressed or relax, if getting ready to take some action, or be able to see if they are in love with another dolphin every time they swim by. You would naturally get a kind of extended self in way that humans don’t have. Still be some individual nature – dolphin has to protect itself and feed, so not total hive mind – but the individuated self like we have wouldn’t be there.

How you tie that into neuroanatomy is unclear to me. Presumably a large part of what the dolphin cortex is doing is this sort of refined spatial/social modeling that humans don’t have to do and are not that good at. You could hypothesize that if we grafted that aspect of the dolphin’s cortex into a human, all of a sudden we would try to detect very fine details of the physical movements of those around us. We would gravitate towards living in a small tribe of naked people who walked around looking at each other and sensing each other all the time because our natural inclinations would be to have a kind of group embodied extended self.

LORI: There has been a lot of talk over years about the dolphin having an extended self as well as an individual self. There is a dynamic quality to the dolphin way of life. Of course they don’t build houses or make weapons – other beings are their substrate, in a very real sense. It’s interesting to think they evolved from herd animals. They may be an example of a species which has taken the herd mentality mind and jacked it up to a whole new level of complexity.

JEFF: It makes me think that maybe cetacean Enlightenment is individuation.

LORI: Maybe! It does explain a lot of odd social behaviors – mass stranding, synchronization, fact that if want to catch a whole bunch of dolphins all you have to do is go after a few one of them – they don’t leave each other. There is a real social imperative in their world that is strange even to us, as social as we are. Compared to dolphins we’re not social at all.

BEN: So Jeff, what would happen if you took the regions of a human cortex and cerebellum that are adapted for tool building and integrated those with a dolphin brain – and gave them thumbs and fingers?

JEFF: They’d build social networking software, except amplified. They’d build long snaking systems of luge-like mirrors that would channel, direct and facilitate even more social closeness but also amplify those effects in all kinds of inventive and unexpected ways. You could imagine all kinds of new social and cognitive insights.

BEN: They’d engineer a global dolphin hive mind.

LORI: Humpback whales already have that.

JEFF: But would we humans be able to connect with a mind like that?

BEN: When humans describe something they make it precise, divide into parts, recombine them – that’s they how build words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Dolphin language may enforce and harmonize with a quite different way of thinking about the world which we can’t understand that well. You can hypothesize it is somehow about flows and forces of influence, that it isn’t about breaking into parts and building up again.

Maybe these two ways of looking at the world are complementary, like the wave and particle in quantum mechanics. Or maybe they are completely incommensurable perspectives on the world that can’t be added up.

LORI: Except at the same time there is still a huge psychological overlap between humans and cetaceans that has to be accounted for. Decades of work on dolphin cognition tells us they are different but they also recognize themselves in mirrors as we do, they are capable of learning and understanding a symbolically-based syntactical language, their memory systems are very similar to ours. Cognitively they are much more like us than we might expect given other divergences. I also suspect that we share basic emotions such as love – and from working with them, I can tell you they definitely have a sense of humour.

JEFF: In a way we are touching on the ultimate cosmic question: what is shared and what is distinct? I would argue there is always a pith of oneness between any life form, just as there is also a multiplicity of difference. An infinite number of perspectives looking out from something that is common. So even between us and a dolphin, at a high level there is a distinct perspective difference that may be incommensurate in the way Ben describes. But on another level, I can look at a dolphin swimming in the water, and know something about the feeling of water, and movement, and the feeling of having a body. It’s different of course, but the point is there is an overlap: both the fact of our mutual skin-and-bone embodiment, and the shared world in which we swim and play.

LORI: In the end it comes down to how far or how close in you want to get. Where do you want to put the lens? The difference between us comes down to a resolution issue.

Reading references

Ben Goertzel and Allan Combs wrote Water Worlds, Naive Physics, Intelligent Life, and Alien Minds, Journal of Cosmology 5, 897-904.

Among Lori Marino’s papers are Convergence in intelligence and self-awareness, Journal of Cosmology, vol. 14; and Cetacean brains: How aquatic are they?, The Anatomical Record, 290.

Jeff Warren wrote Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness (Random House, 2007). You can listen to his two CBC Radio documentaries on whale consciousness here.


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