Join 3,514 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How do animals think?
May 20, 2011 8:51 AM   Subscribe

How do animals think? I was watching a cat in our garden the other day, and I wondered how it thought as it doesn't have language to think in. Then I thought: yes, but when I am working on an (easy - not cryptic) crossword, sometimes I am not thinking in words (if this makes sense?)

(re: crossword. I was working on one with a couple of friends, it was an 11 letter word like this: IN _ _ _ _ _ ABLE. Someone said "it probably ends in "table" so we put the T in but non of us could think of a word, so we re-wrote it, took the T out, and suddenly, there was the answer in my head: INESTIMABLE. I didn't conciously think through lists of words, it just appeared, fully formed.)
posted by marienbad to Pets & Animals (33 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would challenge the notion that cats don't have "language." It may be cruder than "language" as you understand it, but the different styles of mew a cat makes do have a "vocabulary" of sorts.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:58 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wikipedia is a pretty good starting point for exploring the state of animal cognition research.

The fact that some animals have a wide range of signals doesn't mean that they have language. Now if cats had grammar, that would be interesting.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:02 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


The CBC Radio program Ideas recently did a three-part series, called "Dogs Themselves", on how dogs think. It's species-specific, of course, but it does a really good job of exploring the question.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:05 AM on May 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


My cat understands English, and responds in her cat language. For sure they think.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:12 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was watching a cat in our garden the other day, and I wondered how it thought as it doesn't have language to think in. Then I thought: yes, but when I am working on an (easy - not cryptic) crossword, sometimes I am not thinking in words (if this makes sense?)

A better example is doing something physical that involves thinking and making decisions but does not involve language. For example, let's say your phone rings. You do not mentally think "Phone", your brain recognizes the sound and you probably do the appropriate action (like picking up your phone to answer it) without explicitly thinking about the action in terms of language. It's not "instinct", because your reaction to your phone is a completely learned behavior. If you look at cases of feral children, they have been able to have relatively advanced levels of cognitive ability (certainly better than animals) without any sort of sophisticated learned or invented language. So regardless of how a cat actual thinks from the cat's perspective (which is likely impossible to really know), the ability to function without what we think of as language is possible.

I would challenge the notion that cats don't have "language." It may be cruder than "language" as you understand it, but the different styles of mew a cat makes do have a "vocabulary" of sorts.

As far as anyone can tell from research, animals do not have anything near to the complexity of language that humans do. Wikipedia has a good rundown of the aspects that are unique to humans or are at least not found together in other animals. If you look at data from primate research using sign language or other methods, while there is some evidence that animals learn to associate specific symbols with real-world concepts, there is not much evidence of animals using those symbols as building blocks to create higher-level compositions of thoughts as humans do naturally. So it is not much of a stretch to assume that when animals think, they do not do the same sorts higher-level thinking mentally.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:16 AM on May 20, 2011


The problem is more general; I can't say how you think. Google "What is it like to be a bat?"
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:20 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Possibly related, Wittgenstein had the famous quote that "Even if a lion could speak, we could not understand him."
This is not completely arbitrary, however. Depending on one’s environment, one’s physical needs and desires, one’s emotions, one’s sensory capacities, and so on, different concepts will be more natural or useful to one. This is why “forms of life” are so important to Wittgenstein. What matters to you depends on how you live (and vice versa), and this shapes your experience. So if a lion could speak, Wittgenstein says, we would not be able to understand it. We might realize that “roar” meant zebra, or that “roar, roar” meant lame zebra, but we would not understand lion ethics, politics, aesthetic taste, religion, humor and such like, if lions have these things. We could not honestly say “I know what you mean” to a lion. Understanding another involves empathy, which requires the kind of similarity that we just do not have with lions, and that many people do not have with other human beings.

The point is that their way of thinking is so alien to ours that we couldn't even guess.
posted by rmless at 9:20 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was going to come and blab about Wittgenstein as well, as he really gets to the heart of this question, especially w/r/t language and thought.

You might also want to check out this episode of Radiolab: Animal Minds.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:22 AM on May 20, 2011


To elaborate:

Thinking, in the way we mean it as humans, which involves things that ostensibly animals don't have conceptions of - universals, abstract concepts, certain relations - is embedded completely within our language (Wittgenstein: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Or: "When I learn a new word I learn a new concept."). These conceptions and notions are because of our language. How else would we conceive of them? Or explain them? We cannot talk about thought without talking about it. How else would we form the notion of 'to the right of' without the language to express it? They are one in the same.

Lower animals without the cognitive capacity for complex languages like this are simply reacting to instincts, impulses and urges and possibly emotions largely residing in their reptilian brains. We might ask the question, 'do cats feel sadness?' And the answer is probably a yes, but. It isn't 'sadness' in the sense that we understand it, in the sense that 'sadness' for us is a concept fraught with memories and social constructions and of all of these cognitive - language-dependent- sort of elements. A cat would not think of it in that sort of meta-level. For a cat it's probably just this fleeting visceral thing.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:31 AM on May 20, 2011


As far as anyone can tell from research, animals do not have anything near to the complexity of language that humans do.

Well, no, but that's not what I was saying. I do know it's nowhere near as complex as with humans. But it's also not "just making noise", either; it's an extremely crude form of it, but I would argue that the fact that certain noises happening only in a given context is a very crude form of "language."

I will admit that I'm using an extremely broad definition of the term, though. That was just to challenge the argument I was seeing, which was "becuase animals don't speak in human-type speech, that means they don't have a way to respond to or communicate about different situations." And that is not the case.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on May 20, 2011


I'm reminded of something I read somewhere which went along the lines of:

Q: What are cat's dreams like?
A: You probably don't want to know.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:34 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Like you, I don't think we think in words, linearly; I think we use words to describe and summarize and communicate to others what we've come to realize or figure out by other, non-verbal means. The brain makes these instantaneous, inexplicable, electro-chemical connections and presents us with ideas which our conscious mind then accepts, modifies or rejects. At that point, we may invoke words to clarify the idea to ourselves or communicate it. Probably the "lower" animals are pre-verbal, and reach conclusions based on some combination of instinct, experience, observation and learning, but also, like us, mostly non-linearly. Then they may communicate it, mostly non-verbally.
I'm trying to "think" this through as I type, and that's as far as I've gotten. Have to go back and re-read my Wittgenstein, I guess.
Is this idle chat?
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:37 AM on May 20, 2011


"I will admit that I'm using an extremely broad definition of the term, though. That was just to challenge the argument I was seeing, which was "becuase animals don't speak in human-type speech, that means they don't have a way to respond to or communicate about different situations." And that is not the case."
posted by EmpressCallipygos

Sorry that you have misunderstood me somewhat, but that is not what I am saying. I would totally agree that animals are able to communicate. I have play-fought with dogs and there is a serious amount of non-verbal communication going on. The dog knows it is play, it doesn't hurt me at all (well, not intentionally, and when it does it knows it, and responds to that too).

""'do cats feel sadness?' And the answer is probably a yes, but. It isn't 'sadness' in the sense that we understand it, in the sense that 'sadness' for us is a concept fraught with memories and social constructions and of all of these cognitive - language-dependent- sort of elements. A cat would not think of it in that sort of meta-level. For a cat it's probably just this fleeting visceral thing."
posted by Lutoslawski

I have looked after a friends dog while they were away for a week. It moped around all day, every day, and kept sighing, so I would respectfully disagree with this, however I would agree fully with the first paragraph of your post, especially the Wittgenstein quotes: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." And, "When I learn a new word I learn a new concept."

I have other questions regarding human language but will save them for another ask as they are not pertinent to this issue.

Thanks for some great and thought provoking answers so far.
posted by marienbad at 9:48 AM on May 20, 2011


(Wittgenstein: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Or: "When I learn a new word I learn a new concept."). These conceptions and notions are because of our language. How else would we conceive of them? Or explain them? We cannot talk about thought without talking about it. How else would we form the notion of 'to the right of' without the language to express it? They are one in the same.

You are basically describing linguistic determinism here, which is not really supported by research. Most linguists believe that while some cognitive abilities are limited by language (such as the ability to identify colors as distinct), others are independent of language. Your theory would suggest that when children are raised speaking a pidgin language, they would be limited in thought by its lack of power to express complex ideas, when in fact they spontaneously develop a more complex creole language to better express themselves.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:52 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


As a linguist, I came in here to say what burnmp3s said. However, I would amend "the ability to identify colors as distinct" to "the tendency to split colors up along a linguistically-supported spectrum." There are bits and pieces of experiments which show some connection between language and abstract thought, against mountains of evidence failing to show that there is anything more than a very weak connection.
posted by Maximian at 10:40 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have looked after a friends dog while they were away for a week. It moped around all day, every day, and kept sighing, so I would respectfully disagree with this

You've misunderstood my point, I think: listen to that first story about the saved whale from the Radiolab podcast. It is, I think, nearly undeniable that animals do feel sadness - but it is obtuse to prescribe our human notions of 'sadness' upon the perceived emotions of our pets or other animals - because it is necessarily not the same. And this point isn't trivial (well, how fine the line between profound and trivial). Do animals 'love?' Of course they do - but we must also recognize that when we say that we're painting a very skewed picture of the sorts of 'emotions' animals actually feel.

And it isn't just about solipsism. As Wittgenstein says, 'when you have a pain, even if I don't have that pain, I can understand how you are feeling [paraphrased].' It's very much tied to how humans can use language to express things to one another that animals cannot.

You are basically describing linguistic determinism here, which is not really supported by research. Most linguists believe that while some cognitive abilities are limited by language (such as the ability to identify colors as distinct), others are independent of language. Your theory would suggest that when children are raised speaking a pidgin language, they would be limited in thought by its lack of power to express complex ideas, when in fact they spontaneously develop a more complex creole language to better express themselves.

In a way, yes, but it's more nuanced than mere linguistic determinism - it's a much more chicken and or egg issue.

I don't think it follows from Wittgenstein that children raised speaking a pidgin language would be delimited - in fact I think Wittgenstein would be the first to point out that of course these children develop more complex languages, because language arises from the necessity of use. The verdict is still out on all of this, but, to take a note from Chomsky, it's likely that on some level we (humans) all share certain cognitive faculties adept for the structures of language - and the actual languages that evolve from that, while diverse, basically all serve the same functions.

I think of the Radiolab episode (sorry to keep pulling that out) on 'Words,' where we meet a man who for 27 years spent deaf and mute did not know that things had names. And when he had this revelation, he could only describe the time before as the 'dark time.' How else could he describe it? He couldn't, necessarily. How would one go about thinking about things if one didn't know that things had names? It would not affect only your language; no it would color your entire cognition. I mean, in a certain sense it is tautological seeming. The concept of 'green' exists because we call it so, and hence I think about 'green' as a universal separate from blue or yellow.

It is not enough to ask 'would blue exist without our naming it so?' It's question begging. Blue would exist, but 'blue' would not - and in that sense Blue wouldn't either.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:01 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Agree with a robot made out of meat--you really, really want to be reading some Thomas Nagel. From the wikipedia:
In "What is it Like to Be a Bat?", Nagel argues that consciousness has essential to it a subjective character, a what it is like aspect. He states that "an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism."[6] His critics have objected strongly to what they see as a misguided attempt to argue from a perfectly true fact about how one represents the world (trivially, one can only do so from his own point of view) to a false claim about the world, that it somehow has first personal perspectives built into it. On that understanding, Nagel is a conventional dualist about the physical and the mental. This is, however, a misunderstanding: Nagel's point is that there is a constraint on what it is to possess the concept of a mental state, namely, that one be directly acquainted with it. Concepts of mental states are only made available to a thinker who can be acquainted with his/her own states; clearly, the possession and use of physical concepts has no corresponding constraint.
So, that's pretty much with Lutoslawski's saying, that without the ability to think about one's mental state (to have a sense of self, and to say something like, "This emotion that I'm feeling is sadness; this is what sadness is like," then you really don't have consciousness at all. Just a mishmash of feelings and no ability to introspect on them.)

Remember, too, that humans are animals--and that animals like, say, chimpanzees, are probably far closer to us in ability to introspect on mental states than mice. A lot of people will say that there's a Clever Hans effect going on in animals--cats meow the same way every time they want a treat because we reward them for doing it. But I've heard it argued that the roots of human language might be in the same places of operant conditioning. Humankind existed for a very, very long time without written language--who knows how long we existed without spoken language, too. But they were still biologically human. Food for thought.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:05 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

- Henry Beston, The Outermost House
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 11:40 AM on May 20, 2011


I think of the Radiolab episode (sorry to keep pulling that out) on 'Words,' where we meet a man who for 27 years spent deaf and mute did not know that things had names. And when he had this revelation, he could only describe the time before as the 'dark time.' How else could he describe it? He couldn't, necessarily. How would one go about thinking about things if one didn't know that things had names?

And yet he obviously did have cognitive function without being able to use names. Since he didn't have a name for food, or even have the concept of coming up with a name for food, does that mean that he did not understand the concept of eating? You used the quote "When I learn a new word I learn a new concept." I would counter that when learning a new word, you are simply learning a label for a concept that you may or may not already be familiar with. There are many, many concepts that we deal with in life that we do not explicitly name, or even explicitly recognize as a distinct concept.

It would not affect only your language; no it would color your entire cognition. I mean, in a certain sense it is tautological seeming. The concept of 'green' exists because we call it so, and hence I think about 'green' as a universal separate from blue or yellow.

It is not enough to ask 'would blue exist without our naming it so?' It's question begging. Blue would exist, but 'blue' would not - and in that sense Blue wouldn't either.


The underlying concept of "green" exists because your eye can perceive different wavelengths of light and the visual processing part of your brain recognizes those differences. If you are saying that not having a name for a color means that you can't have a concept for that color, then that is objectively false. If you show me a color sample of a shade of blue, and then test if I can pick out the same color on a set of very similar unlabeled shades of blue swatches, I will be able to perform that task without coming up with arbitrary names for those colors. If lacking a name for a specific wavelength of light is in some way limiting cognitively, then what specific effect are you claiming this would this have?
posted by burnmp3s at 12:00 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


And yet he obviously did have cognitive function without being able to use names. Since he didn't have a name for food, or even have the concept of coming up with a name for food, does that mean that he did not understand the concept of eating? You used the quote "When I learn a new word I learn a new concept." I would counter that when learning a new word, you are simply learning a label for a concept that you may or may not already be familiar with.

I'm not denying he had cognitive function in some capacity. And of course he would not have understood the concept of 'eating.' What would you mean by understanding, other than the ability to explain it? He ate, obviously, but he couldn't have understood eating qua concept. What would that look like? How would we even know whether he understood such a thing but through language?

It is not that language creates the outside world, but it certainly shapes our understanding and interaction with it.

There are many, many concepts that we deal with in life that we do not explicitly name, or even explicitly recognize as a distinct concept.


Such as? Oh, but we could not name them, could we. So what would we even be talking about? I would argue that there are no concepts we do not name. If you disagree, I challenge you to name one: aha!

It is worth noting that there is a distinction here to be made between a thought and a perception, for these are not the same. Our perceptions could be said to be made orderly or to have understanding brought to them through thought, which is made manifest in language, or at least thought is impossible to divorce from language.

The underlying concept of "green" exists because your eye can perceive different wavelengths of light and the visual processing part of your brain recognizes those differences.


Well no, not really. Perception and concepts have a very tenuous relationship, the philosophical extent of which it is not possible to go into here. But the relationship between these things is much more complex than the concept of 'green' arises from our perception of wavelengths that measure between such-and-such. For by even speaking of it now, by delimiting 'green' as a signifier of an arbitrary set of things, we have enmeshed ourselves in a world of communication quite removed from the one of pure perception.

If you show me a color sample of a shade of blue, and then test if I can pick out the same color on a set of very similar unlabeled shades of blue swatches, I will be able to perform that task without coming up with arbitrary names for those colors.

An example from Wittgenstein! Cheers. Yes; this is true, but this example says nothing of the contingencies between thought and language. When Wittgenstein used this example, he meant to point out that this is in fact the way we use words, and that they expand our understanding and communication of concepts beyond merely being able to recognize two of the same shade. For 'blue' creates an abstraction - a thinking - that does not exist in the mere matching of shades, which is without concept but only perception.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:12 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lower animals without the cognitive capacity for complex languages like this are simply reacting to instincts, impulses and urges and possibly emotions largely residing in their reptilian brains.

This (especially the "possibly emotions largely residing in their reptilian brains" bit) is really not supported by the current state of affective neuroscience. These are creatures which share our limbic system, appear to be able to think and feel, and have co-evolved along with human beings for thousands of years (tens of thousands, for dogs, to the point where they have an innate understanding of human gesture quite similar to our own). Wittgenstein aside, this suggests that the emotions of our pets aren't "necessarily not the same" as our own; they could very well be the same, whether or not animals have language with which to quantify them.

Research suggests that cats are probably not self-conscious (unlike dolphins, elephants, chimps, magpies, and a few other animals for whom there is evidence), but it also suggests they are conscious in the sense that they are aware of their surroundings and alter their behavior accordingly... and that they may even be conscious in the sense of having some sort of subjective experience of their own consciousness. The idea that higher animals are "simply reacting to instincts, impulses and urges" doesn't fit the evidence.
posted by vorfeed at 1:54 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


And besides, if 'blue' is the issue, here, then what are you going to do with rodents whose calls may encode information about color?
posted by vorfeed at 2:23 PM on May 20, 2011


Sorry that this is a bit of a tangent, as it's related to the ability of humans to think without language, and not related to animals. But it's so poignant, and was the first thing that sprang to my mind when I read your question. In Alan Bennett's diaries, he describes a day trip out with his elderly mother, whose dementia is steadily progressing:

We have our sandwiches on a hill outside Weston with a vast view over Somerset. She wants to say, 'What a grand view', but her words are going too. 'Oh', she exclaims. 'What a big lot of About.' There are sheep in the field. 'I know what they are', she says, 'but I don't know what they are called'. Thus Wittgenstein is routed by my mother.
posted by penguin pie at 2:47 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


There are many, many concepts that we deal with in life that we do not explicitly name, or even explicitly recognize as a distinct concept.

Such as? Oh, but we could not name them, could we. So what would we even be talking about? I would argue that there are no concepts we do not name. If you disagree, I challenge you to name one: aha!


I'm not saying that these concepts are necessarily unnameable, just that in practice, an individual learns concepts and uses them to do things without naming them or otherwise spending time to even consciously realize that such concepts exist. Let's say I'm a master of the game of Go. Clearly, I understand many intricate details of the game, but I could never communicate all of those details. I could spend years naming as many Go concepts as I could and writing them all down in a very long book that explains every aspect of Go that I could possibly explain, but if you read it and understood all of it you would not be a master at Go. And yet clearly it's my understanding of Go that allows me to perform at such a high level. I would argue that through my experience I have learned concepts about Go that I not only have not named, but that I am not even consciously aware of, and yet that I still use as part of the cognitive process of determining which moves I make. Is your argument that the things I know about Go but am not able to write down in a book are not in fact concepts? If so what do you call those sorts of things?

What would you mean by understanding, other than the ability to explain it? He ate, obviously, but he couldn't have understood eating qua concept. What would that look like? How would we even know whether he understood such a thing but through language?

We might be arguing over definitions at this point. By my definition of "understanding", you can infer understanding through observation. Take the example of a few month old baby that has not acquired any sort of language or ability to explain anything. At a certain age, they will not understand that when a moving object passes behind an obstruction, the object continues to exist. This has been verified experimentally, by having a toy car move along a track for the baby to observe, and then adding a barrier in front of half of the track for a second run so that the toy is not visible for part of a second run. At an early age, the baby will become upset and does not know where the toy is, whereas at a later age they will crawl directly to the end of the track where they know that the toy is. To me, this is clear evidence that despite the fact that I can't have a conversation with the baby about whether or not things disappear when you can't see them, at a certain point they nonetheless understand it. Is your argument that metacognition is required before something is "understood", that the baby would need to actively think about objects and whether or not they disappear in order to understand it, rather than just have the cognitive ability to determine where to go to find the object when it's not visible? If so it would be up to you to prove that metacognition requires language, such as by showing that people/animals without language cannot perform tasks that require metacognition.

For 'blue' creates an abstraction - a thinking - that does not exist in the mere matching of shades, which is without concept but only perception.

I would argue that it's possible to create abstractions without naming them. My Go example above would almost certainly involve a lot of complex abstractions about board states that could not be categorized as mere perception. To make it simple: Let's say I am a human or animal that has never learned a language, what specifically can't I do? How could you design an experiment to prove this scientifically?
posted by burnmp3s at 3:04 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think burnmp3s has it. Have you ever watched a cat try to figure something out? It is amazing. That little critter is thinking and processing and understanding. I suspect it is probably along the lines of how when we get really focused on something and someone asks us what we are thinking of. How do you respond? You probably can't, because you are thinking below the level of language.

Or if you are an athlete of some kind and while swinging the club or making the jumps, your entire brain is consumed with the minutia of the activity. You are actively thinking (if not consiously) about every muscle and sensation.
posted by gjc at 5:06 PM on May 20, 2011


The animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has written about her understanding of what is going on in animals' minds in Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. She "contends that animals ... think visually rather than linguistically and perceive the world as a jumble of mesmerizing details rather than a coherent whole." She "argues that animals have formidable cognitive capabilities, albeit specialized ones, whereas humans are cognitive generalists." In Thinking In Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism she explores the question of thinking without language in her own autistic mind.
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:36 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm sure that some animals see the world as a whole but to a lesser degree than humans. Chimps certainly. Some monkey species. I'm sure elephants do. Did you see that elephant rescue video? They planned it, even to the point where they understood the properties of mud, moved it around to facilitate easier movement, built a ramp with it, and then guided the stuck elephant out.

But I agree with the above, even if we could grasp how they see the world, we wouldn't be able to understand it. Like flatland.
posted by penguinkeys at 7:29 PM on May 20, 2011


I favor the theory that the animal mind, whether herbivore or predator, has the innate capacity to create mental models of other creatures' behaviors. A zebra would benefit from guessing the motives and actions of a lion. The lion would benefit from knowing what the zebra is likely to do.

Social animals apply this modeling to friends and family members, with some species constantly reacting to and attempting to influence their peers. This is easy to see in dogs, chimps, etc.

Then--perhaps--what sets human beings so apart is our constant application of this "modeling the other" to our very selves. This results in what we call self-awareness.

I think a cat has a more detailed model of your behaviors and possibly motivations than it has of its own. The cat in the garden was likely just enjoying the flowers, without thinking "I enjoy flowers."
posted by General Tonic at 7:43 PM on May 20, 2011


I think a cat has a more detailed model of your behaviors and possibly motivations than it has of its own. The cat in the garden was likely just enjoying the flowers, without thinking "I enjoy flowers."

If so, though, then where does its model of other-behavior come from? Given what we know of this model in humans and chimps (for instance, the fact that our motor neurons fire just as if we were using them when we see other people or chimps do things), it makes no sense for a cat to have a complex model of other creatures' behavior and motivations, but not of its own -- this would mean being cut off from its sense of its own body when it does things (or, alternately, having a second set of neurons which don't do anything but model other beings' behavior). It would also imply that cats cannot predict their own actions or their obvious consequences (along the lines of "if I do X, then y will happen"), yet they clearly do this.

One of my cats eats from two bowls, hers and the other cat's. When she eats from her bowl she is quite at ease and takes her time; when she eats from the other cat's bowl she grabs large mouthfuls out, moves them a short distance, gobbles them, then repeats. She seems to know not only that I will pick up the other cat's bowl and put it away, but that I will do it because she is eating out of it as opposed to hers. Without a model of what she's doing moment to moment, I don't see how this is possible; she'd be able to predict my actions, yes, but not in relation to hers. Likewise, the lion and zebra would not benefit from knowing what the other was likely to do unless they could usefully relate that to their own possible actions.

Antonio Damasio suggests that self-awareness in fact arises from "our constant application of this "modeling the other" to our very selves", but he also distinguishes between this and our basic self-model, which he calls the "proto-self", and our sense of the proto-self as it is altered by things in the environment, which he calls the "core self". As this page suggests, higher mammals have core consciousness according to this model. What they lack is the autobiographical self, the construction of a personal identity which extends into the past and future.

In short: I think a cat is capable of thinking "I enjoy the garden", though of course not in those words; she may not think "I enjoy gardens as a lifestyle choice" the way we do, but I do think she has a mental model of what she's doing as she does it.
posted by vorfeed at 8:55 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


So what do deaf people hear when they think. Do they imagine sign language in their heads? as they think? As far as I know, the answer is no

Are the words in our heads the same thing as our thoughts or are they a side effect. If you want to learn to speed-read you have to stop yourself from subvocalizing, which means hearing the words in your head. All it does is slow you down. Learn to disable subvocalization and you'll still be able to think just as clearly.

If you don't believe you can think without words, try taking a large amount of magic mushrooms.
posted by Paris Hilton at 12:47 AM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for all the amazing replies, lots to read and think about. Really interesting stuff.

Although how I am going to choose a best answer I don't know!
posted by marienbad at 9:23 AM on May 23, 2011


Fascinating disussion. Just a little bit of further evidence that animals (a horse, in this case) can and do think in some form or other:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoFquax2F-k

This is Secretariat's absolutely astounding victory at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. BY 31 LENGTHS.

Anyone who's participated in any kind of sport or competition knows the importance of waging psychological war on your opponents. This is, bar none, the greatest beatdown ever put on anyone. If that's not evidence of a mind at work, I don't know what is.
posted by phmk at 9:02 AM on May 29, 2011


Just saw this quote in the NY Times and found it relevant to this discussion:

And much of what we know cannot be put into words, she explained, pointing out that language evolved relatively late in human development.

“The way we use our minds to navigate the social and general worlds involves a lot of things that are implicit, not explainable,” she said.

—Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame
posted by exphysicist345 at 2:38 PM on June 14, 2011


« Older What is the proper etiquette f...   |  I snore. Loudly. Living alone... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.