Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

CategoryNatural Intelligence

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Spanish jumping spider Saitis barbipes with fruit fly

Yes, Spiders Dream — But That Doesn’t Make Them Leggy People

We don’t know where on the tree of life “mind,” in the most basic sense, begins. It might include bacteria but not viruses

A recent research article from Germany, which has made quite a splash in the popular press, raises some very interesting questions about animal minds. Animal behaviorist Daniela C. Rößler and co-authors studied 34 young spiders while they slept and found that their eye movements seemed analogous to the eye movements of human beings and other higher animals that occur during REM sleep and are associated with dreaming. They pointed out that this seems to suggest that arachnids may have mental states and dreams that are more akin to those of human beings then previously thought. The article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is open access. The research is fascinating in its own right but I…

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Peek-a-boo bee close up

What Does It Mean To Say Bees “Feel and Think”?

The New Scientist reviewer is unsure that we are ready for such a radical message. Unsure? At one time, it would have been branded “NOT science!”

Behavioral ecologist Lars Chittka’s book, The Mind of a Bee (Princeton University Press, 2022), is a fascinating detailed description of bee behavior that will cure us of believing that the insect world is devoid of intelligence or sensation. Indeed, in a 2018 essay with Catherine Wilson, Chittka offers many research findings in a shorter format. It’s only in Chapter 11, toward the book’s end, that he makes a controversial claim: From the very start, early in evolution, nervous systems were inseparable from movable bodies with sensors, and developed in order to integrate perception and action. The challenges of survival and self-replication (reproduction) that a moving organism faces are most efficiently met when brain and body are intimately connected, enabling the…

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Macro of a bumblebee collecting nectar on flower

Bees Feel Pain. And Therefore… Insect Rights?

As we learn more from research about how various life forms respond to experiences, a more complex picture may raise political issues

From an online newsletter from Vox writer Kenny Torrella, we learn of a research study confirming that bumblebees feel pain: In a study published last week in the journal PNAS, researchers in the United Kingdom found that bees make trade-offs about how much pain they’re willing to tolerate in order to get better food. The finding suggests bees aren’t just mindless automata responding to stimuli but rather conscious, feeling creatures that can experience pain and engage in complex decision-making. Kenny Torrella, “Can a bee feel,” Vox (August 5, 2022) The paper is open access. Essentially, the researchers offered bumblebees sugar water in color-cued unheated containers, at solutions of 10%, 20%, 30%, or 40%. Then they introduced a catch: They heated…

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Senior woman with dog on a walk in an autumn nature.

Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks? Scientists Aim To Find Out

Not much is known for sure about how dogs age. The Dog Aging Project aims to change that through systematic research programs

Founded in 2014, the Dog Aging Project has enrolled 40,000 pet dogs in an effort to understand, among other things, when dogs’ mental functioning reaches its peak and how it declines with age. Researchers at the University of Washington and Texas A&M are tackling the question via veterinary records, DNA samples, health questionnaires and cognitive tests on the dogs. Better understanding and care for aged pets is a key goal, of course: “There’s a lot we just don’t know about how dog cognition changes with age,” says comparative psychologist Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a collaborator on the Dog Aging Project. What is normal cognitive aging? Do early…

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Pileated woodpecker nest in Florida

Woodpeckers: There Are Advantages to Having a Small Brain

Woodpeckers absorb 1200 to 1400 g shock driving their beaks into wood — but a shock absorbing skull doesn’t explain the absence of damage

How do woodpeckers absorb a remarkable amount of shock to the head — 1200 to 1400 g — for each hit on a tree? A football player might absorb 120 g — without damaging their brains? The answers could help minimize brain damage in humans and suggested explanations include a surplus of tau proteins (2017), an unusual bone in the tongue, and head movements that minimize brain damage. A new research team challenges such explanations saying that their data show that woodpecker heads” act more like stiff hammers” and that “any shock absorbance would hinder the woodpeckers’ pecking abilities.” But then what about the bird’s brain? While the deceleration shock with each peck exceeds the known threshold for a concussion…

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Three friendly happy playing dogs in summer park. German shepherd, american staffordshire terrier and french bulldog holding one stick. Different dog breeds have fun together.

Claim: We’ve Shown That Dogs Can Form “Abstract Concepts”

It’s a good idea to be skeptical when any such claim is followed up with the assertion that humans “aren’t that cognitively unique after all.”

University of Buffalo researchers reported recently on a study of three pet dogs known to them that they had taught to “ponder their past”: Dogs are capable of learning the instruction “do that again,” and can flexibly access memories of their own recent actions—cognitive abilities they were not known to possess, according to the results of a recent University at Buffalo study. “We found that dogs could be trained to repeat specific actions on cue, and then take what they’d learned and apply it to actions they had never been asked to repeat,” says Allison Scagel, Ph.D., the study’s corresponding author, who was a UB graduate student in the Department of Psychology at the time of the research. “Our findings…

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coconut octopus underwater macro portrait on sand

Jumping Genes … A New Clue to Octopus Intelligence?

Despite being very different, the human brain and the octopus brain share the same sort of jumping genes

The fact that octopuses are unusually intelligent (like mammals) — even though they are solitary invertebrates — means that they now receive some protection against cruelty. Protection that no one bothers about for, say, clams and oysters. But the science puzzle remains. How did octopuses and some of their close kin among the cephalopods get so smart? Theories about how mammals and birds got to be smart may not work here. A recent paper adds a little more information to the controversy. Studying the common octopus and the California octopus, researchers found that the same “jumping genes” are active in the octopus brain as in the human one — even though the two types of brain are very different. Jumping…

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Joyful little girl smelling self made croissants with mom

The Nose Really Does Know, It Turns Out…

But we usually don’t notice. Our sense of smell may have declined in recent millennia but it is sharper than we think

Anthropologist Sarah Ives reflects on the experiences of people whose sense of smell fell victim to COVID-19: Melissa, a New York–based podcaster, realized how crucial scent is for safety when she lost her sense of smell. “I kept burning stuff on the stove,” she says. “I’ve sent rotten turkey to school with my kid. I have thought, What if I end up dying because I can’t smell something dangerous, like knowing whether you are going to burn the house down? I’ve literally almost done it three times. There are flames, and I’m just sitting in the other room.” Sarah Ives, “What the Anthropology of Smell Reveals About Humanity” at Sapiens (June 30, 2022) Anosmia, the loss of a sense of…

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Group of cute smart dolphins in the ocean

Why Some Life Forms Are Smarter Than Others Is Still a Mystery

Brains are not simple so many “just common sense” theories have fallen by the wayside

As biologist John Timmer notes at Ars Technica, some life forms appear much more intelligent than others despite having brains of roughly the same size: Animals with very different brains from ours—a species of octopus and various birds—engage with tools, to give just one example. It seems intuitive that a brain needs a certain level of size and sophistication to enable intelligence. But figuring out why some species seem to have intelligence while closely related ones don’t has proven difficult—so difficult that we don’t really understand it. John Timmer, “Brain size vs. body size and the roots of intelligence” at Ars Technica (July 12, 2022) As he points out, some things we might expect to be true — puzzlingly —…

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Fresh uncut octopus on the market. Seafood counter in Sri Lanka.

If Octopuses Are Really Smart, Should We Eat Them?

Proposals to farm octopuses are meeting with opposition on grounds of animal cruelty

Extraordinary recent science discoveries re octopus intelligence have created an ethical dilemma: Octopus arms (tentacles) are gourmet delicacies in Korea, Japan, and the Mediterranean countries and many poor people make a living providing them. Factory farming is of octopuses is slowly becoming practical. But should we do to them what we wouldn’t do to dogs? Octopuses present something of a puzzle. As Canadian investigative journalist Erin Anderssen pointed out earlier this month, “The octopus has already challenged our theories on evolution, intelligence and consciousness.” Evolution? We have tended to assume that intelligence rose with the development of a spinal cord and brain (vertebrates), and warmbloodedness (mammals and birds). So invertebrates like octopuses were expected to be “naturally” less intelligent than,…

Close up of a Chimpanzee-family (mother and her two kids)

Retro Future: In a 1960s Take on the 2020s, Chimps Do Our Chores

And drive cars. The Rand Corporation actually put out a video promoting the idea…

Our “past future” — that is, what people fifty or sixty years ago thought life would be like today — can be instructive and sobering. In 1964, the Rand Corporation put out the idea that by 2020, chimpanzees would be doing household tasks and (safely) driving cars. (The chimps are from 40 seconds to 110 seconds.) The idea that chimpanzees are just furry people must have been well entrenched in those days. It was during the same time period that some prominent scientists, including Frank Drake and Carl Sagan (1934–1996), were actively researching the idea of communicating intelligently with dolphins as well. But the sad reality is that efforts to integrate chimpanzees (and dolphins) into the human world have often…

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Working Data Center Full of Rack Servers and Supercomputers, Modern Telecommunications, Artificial Intelligence, Supercomputer Technology Concept.3d rendering,conceptual image.

Engineer: Failing To See His AI Program as a Person Is “Bigotry”

It’s not different, Lemoine implies, from the historical injustice of denying civil rights to human groups

Earlier this month, just in time for the release of Robert J. Marks’s book Non-Computable You, the story broke that, after investigation, Google dismissed a software engineer’s claim that the LaMDA AI chatbot really talked to him. Engineer Blake Lemoine, currently on leave, is now accusing Google of “bigotry” against the program. He has also accused Wired of misrepresenting the story. Wired reported that he had found an attorney for LaMDA but he claims that LaMDA itself asked him to find an attorney. He went on to say, I think every person is entitled to representation. And I’d like to highlight something. The entire argument that goes, “It sounds like a person but it’s not a real person” has been…

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Laboratory mouse in the experiment test.

Researchers: Our Brains Use Data Compression To Get Things Right

A recent experiment with mice showed data compression at work when the mice were making decisions about how to get a reward

We are used to thinking of data compression in connection with computers but a recent study with mice shows that brains compress data too. The researchers ask us to imagine a dilemma from anearly video game: If you were a kid in the 80s, or are a fan of retro video games, then you must know Frogger. The game can be quite a challenge. To win, you must first survive a stream of heavy traffic, only to then narrowly escape oblivion by zig-zagging across speeding wooden logs. How does the brain know what to focus on within all this mess? Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, “The brain applies data compression for decision-making” at Eurekalert (June 6, 2022) Driving in snarled,…

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leafcutter ants

The Hive Mind: Leafcutter Ants Behave Like Farmhands But…

But they are actually following a colony algorithm rather than making individual decisions

Eric Cassell, author of Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021), tells us that his favorite type of ant (p. 97) is the leafcutter (Attini). Its complex fungus farming provides insight into the “hive mind,” in which a natural version of a computer algorithm enables highly complex decision-making. There are 39 known species of leafcutters in the American tropics, easily recognized as the long trails (up to 30 metres) of ants, all carrying pieces of leaves they have stripped from trees. They bring them into underground nests featuring perhaps a thousand chambers housing millions of ants. There they chew up the leaves and cultivate the fungus that feeds their larvae and themselves (along with plant sap).…

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funny boy and beagle dog are watching laptop on sofa in room

AI expert: Stop Distinguishing Between AI, Human and Animal Minds

Aaron Sloman’s approach to minds sounds a bit like panpsychism — which is increasingly accepted in science — but there are differences

Philip Ball, author of The Book of Minds: How to understand ourselves and other beings, from animals to AI to aliens (University of Chicago Press, 2022), profiles University of Birmingham computer scientist Aaron Sloman, whose 1984 paper, “The structure of the space of possible minds” sought to account for human, animal, and AI minds as “behaving systems.” Along the way, Sloman came to a significant conclusion: “We must abandon the idea that there is one major boundary between things with and without minds,” he wrote. “Instead, informed by the variety of types of computational mechanisms already explored, we must acknowledge that there are many discontinuities, or divisions within the space of possible systems: the space is not a continuum, nor…

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Fresh raw lobster

Asked at “The Scientist”: Do Invertebrates Have Feelings?

Just as vertebrates differ greatly in intelligence and sentience, invertebrates may differ greatly too. The seafood industry is taking heed.

People did not ask this question about invertebrates like bees and snails fifty years ago: Decades ago, scientists and lawmakers had all but reached a consensus that invertebrates could not feel pain, let alone other emotions like joy or fear. Recently, however, evidence is mounting that invertebrates are more than just reflexive beings. Experiments in bees, crabs, and octopuses show that some invertebrate animals can learn from painful experiences, have positive and negative emotion-like states, and might even experience a range of other emotions beyond pain and pleasure. But not all scientists agree that invertebrates feel anything analogous to vertebrate—much less human—emotion. Natalie Mesa, “Do Invertebrates Have Emotions?” at The Scientist (May 26, 2022) Assessing the evidence is tricky. In…

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ants building a bridge

Do Ants Think? Yes, They Do — But They Think Like Computers

Computer programmers have adapted some ant problem-solving methods to software programs (but without the need for complex chemical scents)

Navigation expert Eric Cassell, author of Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021), offers some insights in the book into how ants organize themselves using what amount to algorithms, without any central command: Ants are remarkably consistent in their lifestyle: All of the roughly 11,000 species of ants live in groups, large or small. There are no known solitary ants. Living in groups, they have developed a social lifestyle that includes “agriculture, territorial wars, slavery, division of labor, castes, consensus building, cities, and a symbolic language.” (p. 85) How is this managed by ants with very small brains (200,000 to 250,000 neurons) and very limited individuality? For comparison, among mammals, the agouti has roughly 857 million…

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dolphin underwater on reef close up look

The Remarkable Medicines Wild Animals Find in Nature

The “animals’ pharmacy” mainly aims at treating parasites and wounds using plants and insects

It turns out that many animals know how to alleviate some of their common health problems and we are only beginning to (officially) learn about it. Dolphins, for example: Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins get skin conditions, too, but they come about their medication by queuing up nose-to-tail to rub themselves against corals. In the journal iScience on May 19, researchers show that these corals have medicinal properties, suggesting that the dolphins are using the marine invertebrates to medicate skin conditions. Thirteen years ago, co-lead author Angela Ziltener (@DWAORG), a wildlife biologist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, first observed dolphins rubbing against coral in the Northern Red Sea, off the coast of Egypt. She and her team noticed that the dolphins…

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Two cats hide under the blanket. Outside, the winter snow. The concept of home comfort, security, warmth

Why Cats Can Remember Other Cats’ Names

University of Kyoto scientists found that they can indeed remember, provided they live in the same household

In a study of 48 cats living in private homes and pet cafés, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan determined that they can recognize the names humans give to them if they live in the same household: The scientists showed pet cats living in homes and felines living in “cat cafés” photos of cats they resided with to determine their reactions. The cats were then played an audio recording of their owners, or a researcher, calling out a name — either the name of the familiar cat in the photo or a fake name. Researchers discovered that pet cats spent more time looking at the image when the audio incorrectly identified a familiar cat than when the correct name was…