What Are Animals Thinking?

Wolf, from Nova's "Inside Animal Minds"

The Nova special “Inside Animal Minds” looks at the science of animal cognition and what it's revealing about how animals understand the world around them. Diana Reiss, dolphin cognition and communications expert and professor of psychology at Hunter College, and Julia Cort, Senior Producer of Nova, talk about the intelligence of dogs, birds, and dolphins.

When it comes to animal brains, Cort says, “It’s all about relative size. Relative to body size and relative to the size of brain that you would need to run your body.” Seen that way, a crow’s brain is the equivalent of a chimpanzee’s. Apes, elephants, dolphins, crows, humans all have bigger brains that you would expect.

  • Crows can tackle multi-step tasks that require them to use tools, in a specific order, to get their prize.
  • Bees can communicate about the location of food sources through a “waggle dance.” And researchers have found that bees can learn and even anticipate.
  • “Octopuses are amazing,” Cort says. In the series, an octopus picks us a coconut shell and uses it to hide behind for protection.
  • Dolphins are another incredibly social animal. So much so that Dr. Reiss says, “we think now that they may even show higher social complexity than we see in some of the chimps.”
  • Elephants are highly cognitive, social animals and can distinguish between individuals. 

In one experiment a dog and a raven were given the same task. The raven figures out the task faster than the dog with the owner trying to teach the dog. But before you conclude that dogs are dumb, Dr. Reiss warns, “We have to think about intelligence relative to the species. So dogs have evolved to…do the things that dogs need to do. Crows have certain other kinds of challenges.” 

The three-hour special “Inside Animal Minds” premieres April 9, 16, and 23, at 9 pm.