Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Just extremely cool

Last night I attended a talk by Dr. Diana Reiss, a professor of biopsychology at Hunter College who has been studying animal cognition for roughly thirty years (dolphin and elephant cognition in particular). The event - sponsored by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry as part of their "Science Pub" series - reminded me of one reason I love living in Portland: it's full to bursting with fellow (and fella) geeks! Arriving at the cavernous Bagdad Theater all of fifteen minutes ahead of time, I foolishly imagined that I'd join a warm huddle of fifty or maybe a hundred other psychology/ neuroscience buffs and dolphin lovers, to hear Dr. Reiss discuss the fine points of the mirror self-recognition test. Instead, I found myself clambering into one of the few remaining seats near the front of the theater, squeezing carefully between an assortment of knees and a line of skinny tables loaded with half-drunk pints of beer and and half-eaten slices of pizza, feeling like I'd crashed a party that was too big for anyone to mind much.

There was a lot to enjoy and a lot to learn from Dr. Reiss's mostly informal account of her research into cetacean thinking (she was there to promote her new book, Dolphin in the Mirror). She told a great anecdote (one I could swear I've heard from another trainer) about having inadvertently taught one of her subjects how to administer a time out: when she failed one day to cut the spines from the tail section of the mackerel she was using as a reinforcement, the dolphin retreated to the opposite side of the pool and waited there (watching her) for fifteen seconds, until he judged that she had registered the negative punishment. And she had - she was doubly careful thereafter to prepare the fish properly, though she did test the recalcitrant dolphin on a handful of occasions by intentionally leaving the spines on, and was given a time out on every occasion.

I also loved hearing about some of the wonderfully open-ended research Reiss conducted back in the early nineties with dolphins at Marine World Africa USA. Like many of her colleagues, she'd been continually frustrated in her attempts to "crack the code" of dolphin communication, but she knew that they were terrific vocal mimics. She decided to create a small, novel, mutually intelligible vocabulary by pairing some easily imitable but previously meaningless whistle patterns with meaningful objects: prized toys. One thing that was especially striking about her approach (and doubtless contributed to the success of the research) was her prioritization of choice and control for her subjects. She created an oversized keyboard with symbols that she'd already determined the dolphins could easily distinguish. When a dolphin pressed a key, it elicited a specific whistle and a specific toy: the dolphins chose their reinforcers, and each reinforcer became associated with the sound as well as with the symbol. As she had hoped, the dolphins started using the "words" for their preferred objects, often repeating them while at play. More remarkably, they invented compound terms ("ball-hoop") that they would use only when they had both objects in their possession. Reiss had built a pause into the keyboard, so that even when keys were pressed in quick succession, the two whistles never overlapped; thus the dolphins' neologisms went beyond mere imitation and association.

More wonderful than any of this, however, were Reiss's video clips of dolphins in a state of narcissistic bliss. I've talked in earlier posts about the mirror self-recognition test and the stubborn skepticism in some corners about whether it demonstrates true self-awareness. Can anyone watch this enchanting video and remain in any doubt?

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