Thinkingly, winkingly,
Internet videos
Promise us puppies who
Patently plan;

Claim that it isn’t just
Clearly, these canines are
Thinking like Man

Over at NPR’s 13.7:Cosmos And Culture blog, Barbara J. King has another of her pieces on animal cognition. I very much enjoy these, even when I fundamentally disagree…like today.

The post is “Do Dogs Think?” (don’t jump too quickly–she explains her title very early on, and it is justified)–clearly, King is on the side of Yea. Which is fine–I also think dogs think… but I suspect that King and I differ on our conceptions of “thinking”. (I did comment at the article–I won’t reproduce those here.)

The trick is, the videos she uses to exemplify complex thought in dogs (at the link) are far too easily explained more “simply” in terms of conditioning (operant, in this case). Which gets me thinking, myself. First (as I say in my first comment, though not in these words), the videos necessarily narrow our focus onto an artificially brief segment of time; we cannot see the history of learning behind each performance. The segments end when the photographer wants them to, so we cannot see what happens next. Any editing of a segment of film may cut out important information; in this case, any trial and error, any shaping and differential reinforcement, that preceded the filmed incident.

(As an aside, the dear departed Cuttledog very cleverly put her paw on a plate to hold it still while she licked it clean. Very cleverly… until you realize that it took her 7 years to stumble on that little trick.)

King welcomed my skepticism, and asked whether it might be hypocritical (not her words!) to explain non-human behavior through conditioning, but not human. And she’d be right, except that a) I fully accept that human behavior (including thinking) is the product of our environmental histories, in a selectionist process many call “conditioning”, and b) I further assert that much of what our current view of human thought is, is utter balderdash. We are not able to feel ourselves thinking (no sensory neurons in the brain), so our introspective accounts are not a measure of our actual thinking, but rather a measure of the influence of our verbal community. For centuries, we have used a dualistic, mentalistic vocabulary (how often do you find the words “mind” or “mental” or “mentally” creeping into your sentences?), which does not correspond to what we know of the nervous system, let alone the interaction of our behavior with a dynamic environment.

So… Do animals think the way we think? I suspect that, very probably, they do. Do animals think the way that we think that we think? Almost certainly not. Do we think the way we think that we think? Again, almost certainly not. How do we think? Ah… an excellent question.


  1. Kevin Boyce says

    I sort of think
    I’d like to think
    About the thought
    Of how I think.
    But though I thought
    To have a think
    Right now I think
    I’ll have a drink.

  2. Trebuchet says

    Do dogs engage in higher order thinking? Of course not! Cats, on the other hand….

  3. ajb47 says

    (As an aside, the dear departed Cuttledog very cleverly put her paw on a plate to hold it still while she licked it clean. Very cleverly… until you realize that it took her 7 years to stumble on that little trick.)

    We had a pair of black labs, sisters, that learned this trick. I think they learned it faster that 7 years, but not too much faster. (I have now asked my wife and she thinks it was even earlier, but we also think they were the two best dogs ever, so we may be biased.)

    Having read a couple of books about the brain now, I agree that our brains do not work the way most people think they work. As to how we actually think:

    Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
    Being Wrong (Adventures in the Margin of Error)
    Thinking Fast and Slow

    The last is probably the best of the three on understanding how we think, though I haven’t finished it yet. I also have “How We Decide” and one about Imagination that I can’t remember the exact title of and am feeling too lazy to go to my bookcase and find it at the moment.

    I love dogs, and I trust that they do think, but my opinion is that they do not think in the way humans think.

  4. MaryL says

    A rarity, the double dactyl. Nice to see a good one.

    I’ve long thought that dogs think in “canine, cats in “feline”, and so on. I watched our German Shepherds work out problems and saw proof that they have an imagination. So do cats. Their predatory play with toys, that they clearly realize are toys, is a good indicator. All anecdotal evidence, but that can be a good reason for more research.

  5. Cuttlefish says

    Heh–MaryL, this place is a bit of a double dactyl sanctuary; they are considerably less rare here than the rest of the world!

  6. echidna says

    I’d never heard of the
    form ‘double dactyl’, ’till
    I read the fourth comment
    by Mary L;

    So I couldn’t help but
    try tapping the keyboard,
    typing, persuading, the
    words to sit well.

  7. Cuttlefish says

    Missing just one element, echidna–you need one line of the second stanza (usually the second line, sometimes the third) to be a single word double dactyl. “Anthropomorphism”, for instance. I once read a double dactyl that self-described the rule, using the wonderful word “antepenultimate” as the double dactyl word.

  8. echidna says

    Ah, I’ll have to give it another go. I love “antepenultimate”.

    So here is the second
    attempt at this verse-form – It’s
    got a sweet rhythm, like
    dancing a waltz;

    Finding the words at a pace
    pleases the monotreme,
    – No, that is false!

  9. says

    I always liked Flanders and Swann’s use of the word in their song Have some Madeira, m’Dear! (which they thought was about cake)…

    Then there flashed though her mind what her mother had said. With her antepenultimate breath: “Oh my child, should you look at the wine when it’s red be prepared for a fate worse than death!”

  10. Trebuchet says

    I’m dreadfully disappointed that my dog vs cat trolling in #2 has gone unnoticed, submerged in a sea of poetry!

  11. MaryL says

    My long ago “immersion” in double dactyls was the result of reading a collection of New York Magazine competitions, “Thanks for the Giant Sea Tortoise”. It was a perfect bathroom book.

    “…and a beard in her ear that tickled, and said, “Have some Madeira m’dear.” Oh, I’ve heard that song once or a couple hundred times.

    I commented on cats and dogs, Trebuchet. *ahem*

    My thanks to echidna for putting me into a poem and to Cuttlefish for starting this particular ball.

  12. Apoidea Theorem says

    I have a cat who is both capable of reasoning in multiple steps and of testing things methodically until he finds one that works.

    On methodical testing: One night, he decided that he needed to get into a chest of drawers. He started scrabbling on the right side of one of the drawers, probably because that often works with doors. This time, it didn’t. So he went over to the left side. That also didn’t work. He scrabbled on the underside, which also didn’t work, and then on the upper side. Success – the drawer came out! Except when he leaned on it to look inside, he pushed it in again with his weight. So again he hooked his claws in at the top of the drawer and pulled it out, and then backed up a step and sat balanced on his hind legs to look inside it, instead of leaning at it.

    On reasoning: We have a kind of armoire with on the left a double door leading to a hanger with a top shelf, and on the right a door to a cupboard with shelves. The cat wants to get on the top shelf on the hanger side. He will first open the double doors, then the right-hand door to the shelves, so he can climb the shelves to the top and from there get in via the now open double doors to get onto the top shelf. And then he’ll lie there looking inordinately pleased with himself.

    None of our other cats has ever been that smart. Though when one of them wants to get in somewhere, he’ll go fetch the smart cat and have him open whatever it is. So that’s another kind of clever, I suppose.

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