Art and the science of canine consciousness

a painting consisting of a vertical stripe of blueThe frustration I feel when I see people look at abstract art and say, “I could do that,” is tinged with hypocrisy. Why? Because when I look at paintings like Blue Column, by Morris Louis, I say it too.

I say it even though I know that Blue Column is art and is important. Afterall, even though I could have produced that painting, I didn’t. And, I love color field paintings and can gaze at them for hours.

I have to remind myself that just because the bar might seem to be set very low when we call an abstract painting “art,” it doesn’t mean that the picture is unimportant or banal.

This attitude toward art helps me be more fairminded and respectful of science. Particularly of scientific research that seems to set the bar really low for canine emotion, consciousness, and cognition.

There is lots of scientific research that seems to do this. And my initial response to that research is generally pretty snarky.

For example, Juliane Bräuer et al just published a research study titled, “A ball is not a Kong: Odor representation and search behavior in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) of different education” in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. The paper reported that when working and companion dogs followed a scent trail produced with one toy and encountered a different toy at the end of that trail, they hesitated.

My initial disrespectful response to the paper was, “No shit Sherlock, I could have told you that.”

But that response inhibits my curiosity about the research program that produced the paper and undermines my ability to think about why the researchers did that experiment and how they might have done it better.

This experiment was designed to explore whether dogs have a mental representation, a sort of olfactory picture in their minds, of objects in their world. The researchers are interested in canine consciousness, just like me.

The researchers found that pet dogs and working dogs, some of whom were trained in search and rescue, both hesitated the first time they encountered the wrong toy at the end of a scent trail, but didn’t hesitate in subsequent trials. They also found that the working dogs followed the trail faster than the pet dogs, but again, only in the early runs of the experiment.

This experiment brings some interesting things to mind:

I’m still bothered because the researchers set the bar so low for determining whether a dog has a mental representation of what she’s smelling. From my perspective, there was no need to do this experiment because the results are obvious:

  • If we think of this from an ecological or evolutionary perspective, it’s difficult to imagine a creature who uses scent to hunt for prey not hesitating when they find a surprising item at the end of a track.
  • I do tracking with my German Shepherd, Milo. When he comes to the end of a track, which is what happened in this experiment, he hesitates and sniffs around trying to find it again. That is what dogs do, and it is what the dogs in this study did. It seems that if the researchers had collaborated with an expert dog handler, they’d have seen that this was an unnecessary experiment.

But, I sometimes forget that my perspective isn’t the only one out there. What if the researchers weren’t trying to prove this point to someone like me?

Afterall, 25 working dogs took part in this study and presumably those dogs’ handlers knew what was going on and I bet the results weren’t surprising to many of those people either.

These researchers were speaking to a scientific community in which many members are skeptical that creatures other than humans and chimpanzees have rich inner lives. (I have one friend who describes rabbits as furry machines that turn carrots into poop.) When juxtaposed against background beliefs like these, this study’s results become surprising, interesting, and important.

Also, this study might be a necessary building block for more complicated investigations of canine consciousness and representation.

Finally, some people will give scientific knowledge more authority than the experience of expert dog handlers and trainers. For example, a scientific paper might convince policymakers who would not be moved by expert testimony that we need practices and laws that respect dogs as having rich inner lives.

I didn’t need this experiment to tell me that dogs have representations of what they are smelling. But that doesn’t make the research unimportant. This experiment is much more convincing than my blustering “I could have told you that” will ever be.

 

 

Are dogs smarter than cats? A new​ scientific​ study doesn’t say one way or the other

After the announcement of a neuroscience experiment on carnivore brains headlines like these leaped onto the internet:

no

Milo and I, as well as Hoss the Cat, share Grumpy Cat’s assessment of these headlines.

You see, the research paper that triggered this brouhaha about dogs being smarter than cats wasn’t about dogs being smarter than cats. This research was conducted in Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s lab at Vanderbilt University. These scientists took the brains of a ferret, banded mongoose, cat, raccoon, hyena, lion, brown bear, and two dogs, dissolved parts of those brains in a detergent solution, and used that solution to determine the number of neurons the brains contained. Researchers then compared the number of neurons in some parts of a creature’s brain to the size of the creature’s brain and the size of the creature itself. They did not do any intelligence testing of any sort. All of this ‘dogs are smarter than cats’ talk is based on the assumption that the number and density of neurons are correlated with intelligence (in this case it’s good to be dense).

This is a very cool experiment, and the researchers found some surprising results, which by the way, had nothing to do with comparing dog and cat intelligence. Here are some of the things they found:

  1. A lot of people tend to assume that predators are smarter than prey animals. From this assumption, a person might predict that predator species will have more cortical neurons than prey species. If there’s a correlation between neuronal density and intelligence, the results of this study contradict this prediction. This study found that predators had about the same neuronal density as their prey.
  2. Scientists expected to find a correlation between how big an animal is and how many neurons it has —bigger animals have bigger brains. This study found that the correlation generally held for small and medium-sized animals but not for big animals. Animals larger than a Golden Retriever had fewer neurons than these scientists expected. Perhaps, these researchers speculate, because neurons are so energetically costly. Think of neurons as race cars in that they take expensive fuel and burn it really fast. It might be the case that large animals cannot afford to have lots and lots of neurons because they lack sufficient fuel.
  3. There is a general belief that domestication makes animals stupider. These scientists did not find decreased numbers of cortical neurons in the domestic species they looked at. So again, if there’s a correlation between neuronal density and intelligence, this study contradicts the idea that domestication results in decreased intelligence.

When scientists find unexpected results or results that contradict things lots of people assume are true, is when science gets exciting and important. These three findings are the best parts of the study, but you would never know it from the headlines racing around the internet.

To be fair, these scientists did find about twice as many cortical neurons in the brains of a Golden Retriever and a small mixed-breed dog than they did in a cat. This is indeed a striking difference. They also found that bears had way fewer and raccoons had way more cortical neurons than expected for their body size. These findings about the bear and the raccoon are way more scientifically interesting than the cat-dog business.

Even though the headlines miss these exciting bits of the research, I am concerned, cranky even, other reasons.

The study did not measure intelligence. It measured the number and density of neurons in one or two individuals of several species. There is a big difference between the number of neurons a species has and how smart or brainy or intelligent that species is. There are many questions left to answer before we start casting aspersions on the intelligence of cats, or on making any inferences about intelligence at all. I would like to know if there are differences in how well those different neurons work, how big they are, and how they are connected to one another. And even if I had the answer to those questions, I would still feel uncomfortable using that data to draw conclusions about the intelligence of a species. Many news stories about this experiment contain buried disclaimers warning us about making assumptions about intelligence. However, they make the very assumption they warn against throughout the story and rely on it to create catchy headlines to interest people in this research in the first place.

Intelligence is not a thing, it is many things. Or more accurately many different kinds of capacities or skills. Some creatures are good at living in social groups, some are good at making tools, some are good at solving puzzles, and some have great spatial memory. There are many different ways to be intelligent. If you are going to talk about intelligence, you have to be very clear about what you mean.

The reporting of this research bugs me not only because the reasoning is sloppy or because Hoss the Cat is getting an unfair deal, although both of those things are true. It bugs me because it has the potential to hurt people.

There are lots of interactions between human and nonhuman research in areas like medicine, public health, psychology, and neuroscience. Research papers about human neurobiology, psychology, and intelligence draw on animal studies all the time. Sloppy reasoning about cats and dogs can lead to and support sloppy reasoning about people. Sloppy reasoning about people has been used and is still used in some circles, to justify sexist and racist conclusions about humans.

So, let’s be more careful. One way to do this is to distinguish between what the data clearly says and what we interpret the data to mean. Once we do that we can start figuring out where we are making assumptions and deciding whether those assumptions are justified. In the case of the density of neurons in cat’s and dog’s brains, the data tells us that, in the sample of two dogs and one cat, the dogs had more neurons in some parts of their brains than the cat did. It does not measure intelligence. The media stories about this research assume a connection between numbers of neurons and intelligence. It might turn out to be true that the number of neurons in some parts of the brain is, for example, related to a species’ ability to solve spatial problems. But this study does not give us data that supports this assumption.

In fact, exciting things can happen when we take the same data and pair it with a different hypothesis and a different set of assumptions. Let’s start by considering one of the interesting conclusions this experiment suggests. It appears to disprove the long-held hypothesis that predator animals are smarter than prey animals. Here’s the argument against that hypothesis:

  • If predators are smarter than prey, [our hypothesis]
  • and the number of neurons is correlated with smartness, [an assumption]
  • then we would expect predator species to have more neurons than prey species. [a prediction]
  • In the experiment, we did not find that predators have more neurons than prey species. [the data]
  • So, our hypothesis about predators being smarter than prey is false.

But, look what happens when we flip things around and use the data to test the assumption I made in the above description of the experiment:

  • If the number of neurons is correlated with smartness, [a new hypothesis]
  • and predators are smarter than prey, [a different assumption]
  • then we would expect predator species to have more neurons than prey species. [the same prediction]
  • In the experiment, we did not find that predators have more neurons than prey species. [the same data]
  • So, our hypothesis about the number of neurons being correlated with smartness is false.

The point is that an experiment and a set of data can be objective and accurate, but can still be used to prove many different things depending on the assumptions that go along with it. We can use the same data to disprove the assumption, OR to disprove the hypothesis. Pay attention to the assumptions and look for independent ways to test them!

And, give your cat a break, she still might be a super genius.

 

What the dog smells: The world of canine olfaction

Milo the AwesomeDog often punctuates our walks with fits of coughing, sneezing, and snorting. He’s not sick. He just sniffs thgerman shepherd dog trackinge ground vigorously enough to suck dirt and leaves right up into his nose. He takes his sniffing seriously and his days revolve around finding things to smell, and then smelling them.

It’s difficult to imagine what it is like to be Milo because while we humans are visual creatures, dogs are sniffing creatures. Dogs live with us, some of them in our homes, but at the same time, they live in a different world, a world of smells.

Nineteenth-century biologist Jakob von Uexküll called these different worlds umwelten. An animal’s umwelt, literally ‘life-world,’ is its subjective environment consisting of objects that it can perceive and with which it can engage. In the same physical space a dog, a bat, and a human have different umwelten because they can perceive and do different things. Humans can see the color red, but dogs can’t. Bats can echolocate and fly, but dogs and humans can’t.

We can begin to understand how a creature experiences the world by investigating how its senses work. If we want to understand the inner experiences of dogs, we need to study how they smell things.

This four and a half minute video, written by canine cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, does a great job explaining the complexity of dog noses and dog olfaction.  It gets us started answering the question “what is it like to be a dog?”

This video taught me that when it comes to smell, there is a bigger difference between the umwelten of a dog and a person than I initially imagined.

This difference is based on more than the fact that dogs are better sniffers than humans, although they are. Dogs can smell odors at lower concentrations than we can–100 million times lower. To illustrate the scale of this difference, Horowitz describes dogs as being able to identify the individual components of a spritz of perfume in a football stadium.

It is not just dog noses that differ from human noses, dog brains differ too. Horowitz points out that the olfactory bulb in a dog’s brain is HUGE compared to ours, and that olfaction bypasses the “thalamus to connect directly to the brain structures involving emotions and instincts.” A dog’s sense of smell is orders of magnitude more powerful than ours, AND olfaction itself is an “immediate and visceral” mode of sensation. So when you think of what it is like to be a dog, you have to imagine a powerful sense of smell, likely producing emotionally charged sensations.

Dogs can smell in stereo. Just as we can tell what direction a sound is coming from, dogs can detect the direction that an odor is coming from. They can use scent to orient themselves in the world.

Finally, a dog’s sense of smell gives them the ability to travel back and forth through time. Dogs can smell into the past to determine who you had lunch with and what you ate. And they can smell into the future, alerting you someone approaching around the corner ahead of you.

Dogs can do different things with their sense of smell than we can do with ours. This impacts their emotions, their perceptions through time, and their ways of navigating the world.

This is exciting and distressing. Exciting because it’s fun to imagine having the superpower that is a dog’s sense of smell. Distressing because the gulf between what it is like to be me and what it is like to be Milo is wider than I thought.

Even though Milo and I spend most of our time at each others’ sides, we live in different umwelten.

German Shepherd smelling grass

Guidelines for responsible blogging about class discussions

The whole time I’ve been writing this blog I’ve been developing a university level class on the philosophy of companion animals called Animals in our Lives. It is not an animal rights class, it is a class on the philosophy and science of human relationships with animals. I have a great bunch of students, and the class has been going very well. So well in fact, that I want to blog about some of the things we’ve discussed.

I haven’t written about my classroom before and I want to be careful to treat my students fairly and with respect.  How does a person write ethically, responsibly, about what gets said in a classroom?

I have two concerns and, sadly (or at least complicatedly), they pull in different directions.

  • First, the classroom is not a public space, and I need to protect my students’ privacy. I won’t name them on my blog.
  • Second, one of the most important aspects of academic integrity is to give credit to people for their ideas.

This gets complicated because often, perhaps even most of the time, ideas develop during discussions and so they are not really any individual person’s idea. And, in the cases where an idea is an individual person’s, it is very easy to forget and sometimes hard to notice, who the original author of the idea was.

It took a little longer than I would have liked for me to realize that the first step for treating my students with respect was to explain my worries and ask them what they thought was the right thing to do.

Together, we came up with a set of guidelines:

We decided that for the purposes of blogging about this class:

  • In general, the ideas that arise in class discussion are authored by the group. Therefore, when I blog about an idea that we discussed in class, I will say that the idea arose in class and I will bring the blog post to the students’ attention, so they can see what I wrote.
  • If they feel that the idea I wrote actually arose from an individual student, they just have to let me know, and I’ll edit or remove the post. A student can let me know themselves, or they can speak up for another student, or they can leave an anonymous note in my mailbox in the philosophy department.

I think this should satisfy my concerns about protecting students and giving them credit for their work.

If you have any other suggestions, please tell me. I care about being a good teacher of people as well as a good teacher of dogs.

Animals in our lives: Teaching the Philosophy of Companion Animals

This semester I’m teaching a university class on the Philosophy of Companion Animals called “Animals in our Lives.” Wow. I feel so lucky to do this! My students are hardworking, engaged, and good-natured, and together we are doing great work. Thanks gang!

Developing and teaching a new course takes up every spare moment. After getting my work done, going to the gym, and training and exercising Milo, I’m usually finished for the day. So, I’ve been posting here less frequently than usual.

Thank heavens I have my students’ permission to post about our class.

For starters, here is an excerpt from the syllabus that explains a little bit about what we are up to.

Animals in our Lives, Philosophy 271

Course Description
This class explores the science and ethics of human relationships with companion animals.

Course Outcomes
In this class you will:
1. Explore the social influences on, and impacts of, scientific research
2. Develop an understanding of the relationships between humans and companion animals from scientific, philosophical, and practical perspectives
3. Acquire the skills and confidence to learn, assess, and use scientific information

Discussion Topics
Unit 1: The science of emotion and the role of emotion in science
• The neurobiology of canine love
• The impact of human emotion on animal research
• The movement of scientific knowledge from the lab to the public

Unit 2: Anthropomorphism or anthropodenial
• The sense of smell and what it’s like to be a dog
• Consciousness and animal minds
• Folk psychology across species

Unit 3: Do good animal handlers and trainers need science?
• Is clicker training scientific?
• The media and celebrity dog trainers
• Different kinds of expertise and the public understanding of science
In each unit, we will explore readings from scientific, philosophical, and popular sources.

So far we’re just getting going on the unit on love.

I’ll update you as we move through the class.

Doggy desires, training, and vulnerability​

Have you ever wished that you didn’t want something?

chocolate cakeFor me, it is chocolate cake. Not fudgy chocolate tortes, but Devil’s Food Cake. I can’t imagine saying ‘no’ to an offer of chocolate cake. I wish I didn’t want chocolate cake, but I do.

Philosophers call these two kinds of wanting first and second order desires. I have a first order desire for chocolate cake, and I have a second order desire that I not want chocolate cake. First order desires are what a person wants. Second order desires are what a person wants to want.

Here are some things Milo the AwesomeDog frequently wants to do:

  • Play
  • Chase things
  • Eat
  • Chew bones
  • Snuggle
  • Sniff things
  • Please me

These are some of his first order desires.

 

chase

Milo’s a pretty intense chaser of things.

But what about second order desires? Can Milo want to want something?

He has conflicting desires. For example his desire to chase things and please me almost always conflict. You can see this in his behavior. When I ask him to sit in the absence of anything ‘chaseable,’ he plops his bum down and looks up at me with soft eyes. He is alert and relaxed.

When I ask him to sit while a skateboard whizzes by, he sits but hums with tension. His whole body focuses on the potential chasee. Hips tense like a runner in the starting blocks. One paw lifted anticipating his first bound. If I released him, he’d be off like a rocket. But, he restrains himself, because I ask him to.

He and I do all sorts of exercises to help him learn self-control, and you can frequently see him wanting to do something, and not doing it.

But, wanting two conflicting things, or wanting something and not acting on that desire, can be different from having a second order desire. I doubt Milo is thinking anything like, “Boy, I sure wish I didn’t want to chase that dude on the skateboard.”

However, if I consider Milo and me as a unit, I am the part of that unit with the second order desires. In other words, I think that MY desires can play the role of second order desires for Milo and here is where his vulnerability and my responsibility come into the picture.

Humans foster first order desires in dogs in lots of different ways:

  1. Herding and hunting dogs are bred to be biddable. A biddable dog wants to please its handler. A dog bred to work with a person to herd livestock needs to figure out what its person wants it to do and do it. Milo is biddable—he wants to please me—in large part because he’s a German Shepherd Dog, and through careful breeding, humans made German Shepherd Dogs biddable.
  2. Milo and I have a healthy relationship. I took a workshop from a hardcore Schutzhund trainer, and she commented, “He really loves you.” What a great compliment! I work hard on Milo and my relationship, which isn’t difficult because he’s an angel. We love and respect each other. This relationship contributes not to his general biddability, but to his biddability to ME. I nurtured his first order desire to please ME.
  3. Training a dog involves manipulating its desires. In all strictness, I don’t train Milo to sit. I train him to want to sit when I tell him to. I pay close attention to what he values, and by controlling his access to those things, I can make him value other things.

Here’s how all this plays out. Milo has first order desires to please me and to chase skateboards. I have first order desires for chocolate cake and for Milo NOT to chase skateboards. So, if we think of the two of us as a unit, he and I both individually have first order desires. Additionally, I have second order desires for both of us, and I can manipulate Milo’s first order desires. I am the one who wants him to want things. I can make him want to sit more than he wants to chase.

Vulnerability and responsibility.

Sometimes we humans manipulate dogs’ desires to make them perform dangerous work. Police dogs, military dogs, and even search and rescue dogs put their lives on the line for us.

I don’t put Milo in danger, in fact, most of his training is to keep him safe, but I do manipulate his desires. I don’t just have the power to confine him physically. I have the power to confine him psychologically and emotionally, not with harsh punishments, but by controlling what he values, and what he desires.

I have to admit that he trains me as well: how can I not desire to scratch his head when he lays it on my lap and looks up at me with his big brown eyes? But when I train him I have science, coaches, and 150 years of selective breeding on my side.

This makes him vulnerable to me, which is a responsibility that I take seriously.


 

Animals in our lives: A philosophical investigation of the science of companion animals

I am terribly pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching Philosophy 271: Animals in our Lives, a new course offered by the Philosophy Department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

This class is a philosophical analysis of contemporary scientific research on companion animal (mostly canine) cognition, emotion, and training.

The students and I will explore:

  • how this scientific research is embedded in contemporary culture,
  • the practical influences on, and impacts of, this research, and
  • the role of values and ethics in the creation and use of this new scientific knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted as I develop and implement this course. I am So. Excited.

Phil 271 Animals in our lives