What Are Animals Thinking?

Monday, April 07, 2014

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.


Julia Cort and Diana Reiss

Comments [11]

Sophia from Italy

Crows using tools? The Greeks knew that! See the Aesop's fable about the crow who gets the water from the jar.
Intelligence? I think it's hard to say. If they've been doing these things for possibly thousands of years, perhaps they've got specific genetic traits that have evolved into instincts.
Flying is pretty intelligent too. How did they figure that one out?

Jun. 16 2014 12:17 AM
SKV from NYC

The more we learn, the smarter they get ...

Apr. 08 2014 11:48 AM
Martha from New York

Interesting that cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other animals were not mentioned. Is that because they are farmed for food in the most horrible ways and it is a touchy subject for most?

Apr. 07 2014 05:57 PM
carolina from Jackson Heights

I believe that Virginia Morrell in Animal Wise suggests that it is not the actual volume of the brain that indicates an animal’s intelligence, but the relationship between already filled space in the brain at birth, and the capacity to fill that space with knowledge and information. Thus, the more empty space, the more room for intelligence.
Great show.

Apr. 07 2014 01:01 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I thought brain convolutions were at least as important as brain size.

Apr. 07 2014 12:59 PM
Jessie Henshaw from Uptown

When you ask "what are they exploring" rather than "what are they thinking" a naturalist observer discovers much more about what animals are doing. I once watched water bugs (long legged striders) on a hillside stream in Tennessee for an hour. There was a "big one" and 4 or 5 small ones, the big one saying in the slow water below a fast rapids a couple feet upstream, very clearly coming up behind the little ones if they lost balance and were swept down to that slow water, then bopping them back up into the fast section, clearly as if to insist they try again. In the hour the little ones had caught the knack!

"Thinking", not sure, but "parenting" or something like it fairly clearly, and having nothing to do with "size"!

Apr. 07 2014 12:53 PM
Iman from Brooklyn, NY

Watching Game of Thrones, I'm curious about how birds have been trained over the ages to deliver messages to places they have never been.

Apr. 07 2014 12:50 PM
Mia from Manhattan

Among dogs, are some breeds "smarter" than others?

Also, how do mixed breeds compare to purebreds?

Apr. 07 2014 12:50 PM
Joe Mirsky from Pompt4on Lakes NJ

Zen and the Art of Canine Maintenance

Concentration! Urination! Defecation!
It’s the concentration part that’s hard. Do it or else, dog! Grrrr.

Apr. 07 2014 12:13 PM
tom from Fort Lee

Amazing that such an accomplished singer has found time to study animal psychology. You'll always be my favorite diva, Diana!

Fort Lee, NJ

Apr. 07 2014 12:04 PM
Steve from Rockville Centre, NY

Research last year showed that elephants are able to understand human gestures. The experiment had two boxes, one with food. A person points at the box with food and usually the elephants would go right to that box.

Other recent reearch on elephants shows that they can differentiate between different African languages.

Apr. 07 2014 11:13 AM

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