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Animal communication

  1. Oct 14, 2015 #1
    I have recently begun reading about human language and how it works. An obvious question that sprang to mind relates to efforts to communicate with other animals. I read Irene Pepperberg's book about her experiences with Alex the parrot, and I have seen video of interaction with Koko the gorilla. I've also heard of the bonobo Kanzi and briefly looked at the Dolphin Project's website.

    What occurs to me though is that human language appears to depend on certain evolved brain structures and cultural influences. Chomsky describes the idea of a universal grammar underpinning human language in which innate brain structures enable human beings to intuitively grasp sentence structure and meaning. Thus there is a sense in which human capability far outstrips other animals capabilities.

    Although for example other primates have homologues of structures such as Wernicke's and Broca's areas etc and can use vocalisations and body language to communicate, and dolphins appear to have a language that permits communication, how close to human communication is that of other animals? Here I am not talking about human thinking, more about the purpose of communication. If communication facilitates sharing and building knowledge or understanding something about the internal mental state of another, do other animals do this or are they restricted to something rather more immediate (eg alarm calls, mating calls)?

    In watching Koko communicate, I don't get a sense that she is actually doing what we do - it seems to me to be more a ritualised behaviour in which certain symbols have been associated with certain interactions. Communication of a sort, but not one with any flexibility. Koko often seems to sign without attending to the actual context - it is the keepers that assign that. For example, she seems in some cases to sign without looking at the people she is communicating with, which seems at odds with the human process of communication. Great apes are known to use gaze following to infer something about the behaviours of others, but I'm not sure whether social interaction in apes requires or prohibits meeting each others eyes so I may be misinterpreting what's happening.

    My question then is, what is the general position of science in respect to non-human animal communication, and do those cases of animals communicating by sign language or vocalisations (eg Alex) actually illustrate true communication? Are they really talking to us?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 16, 2015 #2
    I think you probably know as well as most people the general position, you seem to do your research.

    Communicating is one thing, talking is another. A parrot can communicate to you that he thinks you're getting your fingers too close to him for his comfort by pecking at you. Language in the form that we as human's experience it is something much different. I posted more on this in your other thread, posts #71 and #74:


    As I've asserted in the past my belief is that there is a naive assumption in contemporary cognitive neuroscience and, in fact, most of the philosophical and psychological sciences in general that properties such as "intelligence," "cognition," "consciousness," etc. are sort of generic properties of biological systems or even matter in general and that the only thing that distinguishes one biological species or swirling cloud in Jupiter's atmosphere from another is the quantitative amount one has versus another. It's not that simple. For example, for you or Irene Pepperberg to believe that Alex has human-like cognitive abilities and human-like language communication abilities assumes that "higher cognitive faculties" such as language and mathematical ability are merely generic qualities that all large brains produce, especially brains with large "Encephalization quotients (EQ)." (not to be confused with "intelligence quotient).


    So that's to assume that the bird hyperstriatum and the mammalian neocortex whose evolutionary paths diverged hundreds of millions of years ago essentially produced (through some miracle of convergent evolution you might say), an equivalent form of internal cognitive dialog and language structure? Not likely nor apparent, unless that's what you're looking for or have convinced yourself is the case.
  4. Oct 17, 2015 #3
    Thanks for your comments DiracPool. I suppose I might be mixing things up a bit. That other thread was about consciousness, which seems to me to be different from cognition.

    I used to think that when animals like Alex and Koko communicated it was actually something similar to what we do. Now I don't think so at all. I think Alex and Koko are conscious, but I doubt very much they entertain themselves with anything even remotely like what we do with language.

    But I really don't know. My guess is that Koko and Alex do/did not talk to anyone in any meaningful way at all beyond trained responses. Without evolved structures for language and thought, how could learning a simple vocabulary be put to any use more complex than that?

    I suppose I am curious whether science has uncovered if animals have anything more sophisticated going on when it comes to communication. Or is it just very rudimentary. What non-human animal has been shown to have the most sophisticated communication abilities, and how far do those extend? I assume it is dolphins from what I've read, but equally I got the sense that dolphins are fairly inscrutable in that respect.

    I know that crows are said to be quite 'intelligent' and can use tools and solve problems and even have some simple counting skills, but how much can they really communicate with each other?

    Maybe I am really asking if non-human animals 'think'?
  5. Oct 17, 2015 #4
    Thanks for the thanks. I must admit I'm as curious as you as to what our other distinguished cognitive neuroscientists think as well...
  6. Oct 17, 2015 #5
    Well, that was the point of my earlier posts: these are not separate issues.

    I'm actually writing a paper right now combining my general physiological-anatomical brain model with genomic data, developmental biology and psychological studies, and recent archaeological evidence in one "hail Mary" review that's gonna knock your socks off. Wish me luck.
  7. Oct 17, 2015 #6
    My two cents, keep it simple: it’s all just signaling.

    I communicate a lot with my dog and I talk with her because I think she understands some of my vocal signals, for example tone, volume, and a few consonant-vowel combinations. I often combine vocal signals with movement signals such as pointing, which it is known dogs are good at recognizing. If food is available, she is not allowed to eat it until I give permission, which I do with pointing or a vocal signal. Does she understand the words “take” and “no”? Sure she does. But understanding is just a correct response to a recognized signal.

    To communicate with me she uses voice, tail, eyes and posture. Interesting is that when she uses the eyes, she can only stare with them, so she combines the staring with movement such as sitting, wagging or ready-to-go posture. This is effective in letting her out or giving her a biscuit. When we go out we signal this to her and she responds by going into her basket and lays down to wait. It does mean that she has understood that we are going out, but the real driver is that we signaled her to do this in the past and now we just send a signal to start the program.

    This is what humans do with each other all the time. Nothing more than signaling, however complex it may be, using language or not. The combination of signals are learned and programmed into the neural network, which has to be able to hold, recall and assemble them in different meaningful ways. Animals just don’t have the hardware to program for much of this.

    What I also find interesting is when we use language in our heads for internal thinking purposes. I assume that no other animal uses internal signaling. From your researches, can you point me to an expert who discusses this – the use of language in cognition?
  8. Oct 17, 2015 #7
    An ambitious project DiracPool, all the best with it. I look forward to the result!

    Johninch, I haven't come across much on that topic - I've only just read a couple of interesting papers and articles about human language and haven't really dug much into how that works for animals. I read Irene Pepperberg's book some time ago but I don't recall exactly what she said. I think she very much thought that Alex's use of a basic vocabulary reflected internal consideration, but what little I do know now suggests that wasn't so. I would be interested at some point learning more about the evolution of language in humans - I gather there are some significant differences between us and say other primates but not so much in gross terms which is interesting. Thinking in one's head must use exactly the same processes as that which lets us speak aloud, and I believe there is particular connectivity with the motor cortex, presumably to the area that controls the larynx etc.

    The interesting thing to me about speech of course is that I am in no way conscious of whatever it is that goes on that generates the words. Language itself arises out of some unconscious process I assume - I 'think' what I want to say and then generate that as language, whether aloud or not. But sometimes I think only in images, so it's curious about why sometimes I use words and sometimes images and sometimes both together.

    Now, my guess - pretty uninformed I'll grant - is that the thinking part reflects my brain processing information from which it produces various neural arrangements that then emerge as spoken words. That in itself is to me amazing and I only dimly comprehend what I think that means. I assume though that animals must do much the same - the processing of information similarly results in internal arrangements. They just don't have the sophistication of mechanism to give rise to more complex language. In our case, it looks to me that the primary purpose of language is communication, but by that I mean the capacity for two brains to share something of their respective internal states. If one brain has information that might be useful for another, how do we get that information to that other brain? That's where language comes in. So, animals must do this in some way which is similar in process but differs from us in degree, but does that confer on them the ability to communicate in any complex way?

    I'll have to find the time to do some digging I think!
  9. Oct 18, 2015 #8


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    It has been said, "animals think in pictures";
    and I also casually tried a muffled mumble of "Do you want to go for a walk?" and the response (from a dog) was the obvious happy alert excitement, indicating that the muffled/mumbled statement was understood and the anticipated activity was being welcomed. Maybe rhythm is important in communicating with (at least some) animals.
  10. Oct 19, 2015 #9
    Here is Chomsky talking about internal cognition and language. He agrees with me that the “externalization” (which I called signalling) is separate from our internal use of language.
    It’s rather a long lecture and he gets off to a slow start, but worth listening to when he warms up to the topic.

    He makes some interesting points, for example that our understanding of numerical systems is related to language. This and his other opinions are not always explained in the lecture, presumably due to lack of time.

    He cuts some of this theories short, for example how words are learned. It is not clear what he means when he says that a child is not making a simple association between a word and an object. I think that he would need to explain it in neurological rather than in philosophical terms.

    I also take objection to his broad brush dismissal of gradualism in evolution. Just because some evolutionary steps happen suddenly does not mean that others may not be incremental over a long period of time. His statement in question time that the lack of evolutionary change in homo sapiens in the last few thousand years shows that evolution happens in big-step mutations and not gradually, struck me as peculiar. This may be true of language, although purely his hypothesis, but he should not have broadened it to the whole of human evolution.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2015
  11. Oct 19, 2015 #10
    I've traveled a lot in countries where I did not speak the language. Quite a bit is possible with simple pointing. Usually context makes it clear what you are up to.

    I also learned that a vocabulary of a few thousand words is enough for fluency in everyday life. But I never learned to read the newspaper.
  12. Oct 19, 2015 #11
    Pointing does not always work well. For example, you pointed to me in your quote, which I did not write!
  13. Oct 19, 2015 #12
    It depends on definition. So much so, that I prefer not to use such broad terms. I also think there is a continuum so there is no yes/no answer.

    If it were me, I'd say if the organism achieves its goal through another then there has been communication.

    I think often definitions are forced in order to exclude animals. There is a video of an elephant painting, quite well. Obviously the elephant can visualize what it is representing, and to me that is thinking. I'm amazed by all the denial this generates, that the elephant is making paint strokes that have no meaning to it and were trained into it. Surely it is impractical to train in such detail. It seems to me that people have an egotistical need to distinguish themselves from the animals, to place themselves in a special class.
  14. Oct 20, 2015 #13
    Hmmm... thanks Johninch, I'll have to watch that Chomsky talk! An interesting idea that externalisation of expression is different from internalisation. I'd have thought they'd be similar or identical processes in that the neurological representation of a particular communication is the genesis of the act. It seems to me that saying "Over there" is the same as thinking "Over there" and would have an exact equivalence in gesturing "Over there". That makes me curious as to what a deaf person thinks when they sign...

    Robin Allott for example has done a lot of work with the idea of the Motor Theory of Language or Embodied Language in which it is suggested that speech arises from an adaptation of the motor control system:

    "Speech is the result of an evolutionary exaptation: the establishment in humans of a direct connection between the cortical motor control system and the articulatory apparatus. The evolution of language, shapes or objects seen, sounds heard, and actions perceived or performed, generated neural motor programs which, on transfer to the vocal apparatus, produced words structurally correlated with the perceived shapes, objects, sounds and actions. The motor program generating the word, an articulatory gesture, also generates an equivalent bodily gesture. Gesture mediates between word-structure and word-meaning. In the case of a different word in a different language for the same meaning, a similar final gesture is generated by a different intermediate trajectory associated with different speech-sound elements going to form the different word."

    I also wonder at the idea of dismissing gradualism in evolution on the basis of language (if that's what he's doing - I haven't seen the video). After all, as I read it there are homologues of language areas in the brains of other primates so it's not like those brain structures just appeared fully operational in early humans is it? That then raises the question of whether the expression of the capacity for human language is purely genetic or is as much or more developed by culturally derived influences. Certainly Daniel Everett's work with the Piraha people led him to propose a closer tie between cultural influences and the development of language. In that respect Everett argues very strongly for a rethink of Chomsky's "innate grammars as a genetic property" paradigm. Incidentally it’s worth a read – he published in Current Anthropology in 2005 but I can only find this link from Paul Kay’s collection: https://www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/Everett.CA.Piraha.pdf

    Hornbein, I do recall researching the elephant painting videos and I think I dimly recall it was demonstrated that it's a trained behaviour, but not having seen it in real life I suppose I shouldn't comment. In regards to 'visualising' things, it seems reasonable to me to imagine that animals use imagistic thoughts to represent their inner experience, but much less likely that they can express ideas and sophisticated plans without a language I'd have thought. Pack hunting as mentioned seems largely an innate behaviour and I doubt non-human animals can, for example, develop a complex long term strategy for some cooperative endeavour in which individual participants have unique roles. Although there may be evidence for something like that with dolphins?

    All of that said, my original post was more around what evidence there is for any more complex communication between animals than simple reflexive stuff. Some animals can teach others new behaviours I think, so that constitutes communication given my attempt at a definition of communication above. I am not limiting communication to actual language of course, although in cases like Alex and Koko we are attempting to have other animals learn the basics of human language at least. Which I doubt very much they can...
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2015
  15. Oct 20, 2015 #14
    It's precisely this sort of ambiguity over what human-like cognitive capacities non-human animals have that I think makes it clear that there is little continuous about the human condition with other animals when it comes to cognition/consciousness. While we are still debating whether parrots can recognize themselves in a mirror or whether an elephant can draw a picture, humans are unequivocally publishing groundbreaking research monthly in a variety of journals and announcing new iPhone versions at wallet-crushing rates. No other animals are doing this. Where's the continuity?

    This is not a trivial issue. As I have stated in other posts, governments are dumping huge sums of money on projects designed to emulate the cognitive processing power of the human brain. If these efforts are driven on designing a naive infrastructure based mostly on a presumption that there are only continuous differences between human and animals minds, which is what is happening, then you have a big problem with squandered funds and a likely reluctance to fund future research efforts.

    As far as the painting elephants, I must admit it does look pretty impressive and spooky if you don't know the backstory. The backstory is that these animals go through extensive pre-training and are even coached by their trainers during the actual paintings through subtle ear tugs. Even so, the motor-learning skills and the dexterity of these animals is amazing. However, what they are not doing is visualizing an image of themselves holding a red rose in their trunk, as Hornbein's video seems to imply. If you don't believe the animal-trainer spoiler, then realize that elephants are effectively color blind in the same way that color-blind humans are. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that they are visualizing the color schemes you see in these paintings:


    As far as the larger discussion, who's to argue with me that what I see in this video are not sentient biological organisms who are intentionally trying to communicate with me and impress me with their choreographed dancing act:

    Is that the only requisite for intentionality, a nervous system? Why stop there, when all you base the mechanism for such intentionality on is simply gross external appearances and perhaps the simple fact that animals share a basic nerve net (not you specifically Graeme, I just mean as a general public sentiment)
  16. Oct 21, 2015 #15
    I agree with you in parts. Since your OP was about animals, let’s take my dog again:

    First she sees the postman coming (sometimes I have the impression that she hears him loading the van in the village, but possibly her internal clock tells her that he is due to come). This is the sensory input.

    Then the sensory input is processed and triggers the response of excitement, and possibly appetite.

    Then the excitement causes her to bark, which effectively communicates to the neighbour’s dog that there is danger or a meal approaching.

    So the first question is, does that which precedes the bark necessitate the bark? I would say, in the case of my dog yes, and in the case of me, no.

    I think that it can be deduced from Chomsky’s lecture that this difference arises because I have language and my dog does not. So I can think about “postman” and get excited in anticipation of receiving “letters” without any sensory stimulus and without making any external communication. But I am communicating internally.

    The crunch question is, am I using linguistic concepts when I imagine the postal delivery before or during the event? Does the internal communication use language or not?

    I would propose that my dog’s understanding of a postman is limited by lack of language, and I know what a postman is due to language. I think that this is Chomsky’s line of thought, and he gives examples, but I leave you to judge.
  17. Oct 21, 2015 #16
    I must say that in many ways I agree with your comments DiracPool, it does seem clear there is an enormous gap between humans and other animals in terms of cognitive capactiy. Given my lack of knowledge of the actual physiology concerned I do wonder how much is due to an inherent structural capacity and how much to other more environmental/contextual factors?

    In terms of language for example, it seems to me this is a pivotal difference between humans and other animals, especially written language which has allowed the accumulation of knowledge over time. While we obviously have inherent structural differences from other animals, it's not clear to me exactly how much potential this affords us. How 'intelligent' could other animals be if they had complex language? What adaptive pressures are brought to bear on brain development once complex language emerges?

    I may not have explained myself clearly here, but take Everett's Piraha people. Whilst they have brains the same as everyone else, the claim is that they have cultural constraints upon how they apply those brains. They do not do anything like publish research papers or produce iPhones. Not because they can't presumably, but because they choose not to. My point is that while we can do amazing things with our brains, there does seem to need to be environmental factors at play in how we actually do that.

    Consider the context of any non-human animal in its natural environment. Without language, especially written language, there can be no complex communication, no complex learning or inter-generational inheritance of knowledge, no strategising or planning for the future. Consider too their experience of the constant pressures to simply survive in a world with limited protections from environmental dangers and more than likely the fluid nature of whatever social structures are in place (is Bob here to hug me or kill me?). In addition, the lack of dexterous hands means that few animals have any opportunity to adapt their environment to any great extent and certainly not in a way that affords the opportunity to do advanced cognition. I think we can see a parallel here with early human existence and indeed with modern humans in constrained environments.

    My point is that it may be asking the wrong question to assess animal consciousness and cognition by reference to human experience. Within their own particular environmental context, how competent are animal brains? What could dolphins do if they had hands like ours? What might happen in time for them if they did?

    While there may not be direct continuity between humans and other animals, I'm not so sure I read that as an unbridgeable gap. Humans seem more likely to be the lucky beneficiaries of a particularly advantageous set of circumstances and I am suspicious that human knowledge and capability is rather more dependent upon environmental factors than specifically structural advantage.

    Johninch, I am not convinced of any case for a significant difference between you and your dog in this case which might depend upon linguistic capacity. You have described her behaviour in response to a stimulus, but I'd posit that she can also act upon an unstimulated case as well.

    When your dog sees the postman (sensory input), she accesses internal knowledge about that (presumably she has some idea that the postman is likely to enter her domain and she will see him off, or perhaps he pats her head and she likes that), and she responds accordingly (behavioural response). However, if she decides to wait at the gate in apparent anticipation of the arrival of the postman, she must only be accessing an internal idea of postman and likely time of arrival. That is, she doesn't bark incessantly all day on the off-chance a postman might arrive.

    Your behaviour seems similar. You internal knowledge of postman may lead you to anticipate his arrival bearing letters, and you may keep an eye on the street or letterbox or whatever. When the postman comes (sensory input), you pop out to get the letter, or call to your wife, "Honey the postman's been could you go get the letter because I am writing to some guy on the Physicsforum and can't make it right now, thanks so much" (behavioral response). Your behavioural response doesn't involve so much barking and jumping that's true, but behaviourally, have you not reacted to the stimulus?

    We cannot be inside your dog's head so can you be certain that she does not entertain an internal idea of "postman"? And anticipate with some excitement his arrival in the street, just as he does most days? I agree that your understanding of a postman is more meaningful or at least more complex, but that is conceptual. In behavioural terms, what is the difference?
  18. Oct 22, 2015 #17
    We are not discussing behaviour, we are discussing thinking and communication.

    Here is Pinker talking about it:


    In this video he explains that thinking is independent of language. However, he does not go into the influence of language and other types of communication on the thinking process.

    Example 1: When I laugh and joke with you, I feel happier, which influences my further thinking.
    Example 2: I ask you to imagine a girl pushing a boy. What do you see? Why is the girl on the left?

    I think that what we have is a loop, where cognition and communication are frequently entwined. The question still remains, what if the cognition does not and is not intended to result in a communication? Do we use language as an aid to conscious thought? I think we do, sometimes. Perhaps some people use it more often than others in certain circumstances. This would explain why we talk to ourselves.

    The example is often quoted of the baby who cannot use a language yet, but nevertheless understands certain things. That is irrelevant to the discussion about adult intelligence. My dog also understands certain things. It is language which is deeply involved in the breakthrough to advanced intelligence and how we deal with complex concepts.

    How could I understand “postal service” without the benefit of this label representing the concept of the postal system? How would my brain record this concept without the label?
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