Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

CategoryNatural Intelligence

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Two piles of coins

Are Our Neurons Really Wired for Numbers?

Some neuroscientists say they have shown hardwiring in studies of crows and macaques but others say no, these life forms differ too much

University College London cognitive neuroscientist Brian Butterworth, author of a forthcoming book, Can fish count? (Basic Books, 2022), reckons that, one way or another, in a modern urban society, we process about 16,000 numbers in an average day. Numbers create conceptual relationships between vastly different things. From the publisher’s introduction to his book, we learn, “The philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed that realizing that a pair of apples and the passage of two days could somehow both be represented by the concept we call “two” was one of the most astonishing discoveries anyone had ever made.” At The Scientist, Catherine Offord, discussing his work, offers a critical distinction between estimations of quantity and actual counting: “Our perception of quantity, separate…

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Tomb of bare-knuckle fighter Tom Sayer on Highgate Cemetery

A Philosopher Simply Invents Animals’ Concept of Death

She demands that we accept her invention so we can “rethink” human exceptionalism, and the “disrespect for the natural world that comes with it”

Last week I talked about the question of whether primate mothers who carry dead infants around understand the concept of death. The scientists conducting the research sounded commendably cautious in the conclusions they drew. Not everyone follows their lead in this. Susana Monsóis, professor of philosophy at UNED (Madrid) and author of La zarigüeya de Schrödinger (Schrödinger’s Possum), “ a book on how animals experience and understand death,” dispenses with all that. Her subtitle is “Having a concept of death, far from being a uniquely human feat, is a fairly common trait in the animal kingdom.” Yet she falls far short of demonstrating that. Her essay is a classic on what happens when we seek simply to amass support for…

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Île aux singes

Does a Chimp Mom Who Carries a Dead Baby Around Understand Death?

In a recent study of primate mothers, researchers imply that their behavior shows a growing awareness of the nature of death

That is a trickier question than it first seems. Researchers looked into the habit some primate moms have of carrying a baby who has died, sometimes for months: Published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers compiled data from anecdotes reported in 126 publications on primate behaviour. In the largest study of its kind, researchers undertook the most extensive and rigorous quantitative analysis to date of a behaviour known as “infant corpse carrying” in primate mothers, looking at 409 cases across 50 species. While there is debate among scientists around whether primates are aware of death, this new study suggests that primate mothers may possess an awareness — or be able to learn about death over time.…

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Earth magnetic field

Physicist: Migrating Birds’ Mysterious Quantum Sense Is “Spooky”

Birds like the European robin pack a $10,000 lock-in amplifier into a 2 micron cell

Earlier this year, the night-migratory European robin (Erithacus rubecola) made the headlines. Evidence has emerged that it may be using quantum mechanical effects to sense Earth’s magnetic field in order to migrate. Few expected to find quantum mechanical manipulation in the eye of a bird. Zoologist Eric Warrant, who was not involved in the research, says, that magnetic direction sensing is “the last sense we know, effectually, nothing about.” But this mysterious intelligence appears essential to migration, and hence, to the survival of many birds. So how, exactly, do they do it? Humans perceive the world around them with five senses — vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Many other animals are also able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field.…

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Human brain digital illustration. Electrical activity, flashes and lightning on a blue background.

An Alternative to the Tractable Cognition Thesis

The Tractable Cognition Thesis presents us with a gap in the logic when it comes to NP-Complete problems. How can we solve for it?

The Tractable Cognition Thesis is the proposal that all processes in the brain can be modeled by a polynomial time algorithm. This includes situations where the brain solves problems that are within NP-Complete domains. In the latter situation, it is assumed the brain is only solving a subset of the NP-Complete domain where the problems can be solved with a polynomial time algorithm. With these assumptions in place, the overall implication is that there is a specific polynomial time algorithm that can emulate every process in the brain. However, there is a gap in the logic when it comes to NP-Complete problems. It is well known that humans solve many problems that are in the general case NP-Complete. Route planning,…

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Anomalocaris, creature of the Cambrian period, isolated on black background

Did Minimal Consciousness Drive the Cambrian Explosion?

Eva Jablonka’s team makes the daring case, repurposing Hungarian chemist Tibor Gánti’s origin of life studies

Eva Jablonka is “one of the world’s foremost experts in epigenetic inheritance and evolution” but she has also had a longstanding interest in consciousness studies. She was author, with Marion J. Lamb, of Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (MIT Press 2006/rev. 2014). She and neurobiologist Simona Ginsburg, along with illustrator Anna Zeligowski, offer a new approach to the origin of consciousness in an essay at IAI.TV — one with an interesting departure from many approaches to consciousness: Taking their inspiration from Hungarian chemist Tibor Gánti (1933–2009), who posited a chemoton — the minimal life form or protocell — as the origin of life, they first attempt to define minimal consciousness,…

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small mushrooms toadstools

Mushrooms Have Minds? Well, If You Doubt Humans Are Exceptional…

… it is a short step to thinking that mushrooms have minds. A Miami University biologist has taken that step

It’s pretty daring to claim that mushrooms have minds. But, in the light of what we have learned about plant communications, we should perhaps pause a moment to at least listen. Miami University biologist Nicholas P. Money, argues: Given the magical reputation of the fungi, claiming that they might be conscious is dangerous territory for a credentialled scientist. But in recent years, a body of remarkable experiments have shown that fungi operate as individuals, engage in decision-making, are capable of learning, and possess short-term memory. These findings highlight the spectacular sensitivity of such ‘simple’ organisms, and situate the human version of the mind within a spectrum of consciousness that might well span the entire natural world. Nicholas P. Money, “The…

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Six worlds

New Class of “Hycean” Exoplanets May Feature Life

The new James Webb Telescope will enable much clearer resolution for the composition believed necessary for hosting life

A group of Cambridge astronomers, studying the more than 4000 confirmed exoplanets, think that hydrogen-rich planets may host life. These “Hycean” planets are more numerous than planets similar to Earth and are easier to observe, especially through the new James Webb telescope, to be launched later this year. They are thought to be completely covered by oceans and are termed “mini-Neptune water worlds”: Many of the prime Hycean candidates identified by the researchers are bigger and hotter than Earth, but still have the characteristics to host large oceans that could support microbial life similar to that found in some of Earth’s most extreme aquatic environments. These planets also allow for a far wider habitable zone, or ‘Goldilocks zone’, compared to…

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sad mixed breed dog posing in a cage in animal shelter

Are Animals Capable of Committing Suicide?

Generally, experts think not. They may, of course, become profoundly depressed and engage in self-harm

At Discover Magazine, Richard Pallardy offers an anecdote: In April 1970, Ric O’Barry visited a dolphin named Kathy at the Miami Seaquarium, where she was languishing in “retirement” after three years as the title character on the television show Flipper. O’Barry, who had captured her from the wild and trained her to perform, remembers thinking that she seemed depressed. She was all alone in a concrete tank — not a good thing for a highly social animal like a dolphin. He claims the former cetacean starlet swam into his arms, sank to the bottom of the tank and refused to resurface, drowning herself. Richard Pallardy, “Do Animals Commit Suicide?” at Discover Magazine (August 10, 2021) There is no lack of…

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cuttlefish

Cuttlefish Have Good Memories, Even in Old Age

They are cephalopods and many types of cephalopod show a number of intelligent characteristics which we are only beginning to investigate

Octopuses have been called a “second genesis” of intelligence, that is, they are invertebrates with high intelligence, instead of vertebrates. But their close relatives, squid and cuttlefish (they are all cephalopods), are not far behind, according to recent research. One unusual finding is that cuttlefish have very good memories: Can you remember what you had for dinner last Tuesday? Or on this day last year? It turns out that cuttlefish can, right up to old age – the first animal we’ve found that doesn’t show signs of deterioration in memory function over time. David Nield, “The Incredible Brains of Cuttlefish Hold Memories That Never Seem to Fade” at ScienceAlert (18 August 2021) Of course, cuttlefish live only a couple of…

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Horseshoe Crab and Sand

Do Brains Really Evolve? The Horseshoe Crab’s Brain Didn’t

It’s very rare to find an intact fossil brain but a rare combination of minerals preserved one from 310 million years ago

Recently, paleontologist Russell Bicknell and colleagues found a fossil horseshoe crab in the Yale Peabody Museum, originally from the Mazon Creek fossil beds near Chicago. That, in itself wasn’t spectacular but, for geological reasons, the creature’s brain was preserved, an extremely rare situation. So how much had the horseshoe crab’s brain changed in 310 million years? Not at all, really: A new beautifully preserved fossil of a horseshoe crab has now revealed that their brains have hardly changed since at least the Carboniferous Period… The brain structure of the ancient crab is almost identical to that of living species. In fact, it is this extraordinary similarity that meant the researchers could be confident that what they were looking at was…

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Polar Bear

Polar Bears Use Stones to Kill Walruses

The unexpected bear behavior was dismissed as folklore in the past although there is certainly evidence of other life forms using rocks as tools

At one time, researchers thought it was a myth that polar bears could use stones to kill walruses. Not any more: Walruses, weighing as much as 1,300 kilograms with huge tusks and nearly impenetrable skulls, are almost impossible for a hungry polar bear to kill. But new research suggests that some polar bears have invented a work-around — bashing walruses on the head with a block of stone or ice. For more than 200 years, Inuit in Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic have told stories of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) using such tools to aid in killing walruses. Yet explorers, naturalists and writers often dismissed such accounts, relegating them to myth along with tales about shape-shifting bears. Gloria Dickie,…

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Joke

Why Animals Can Count But Can’t Do Math

A numerical cognition researcher outlines the differences between recognizing numbers and doing math

At The Conversation, psychology professor Silke Goebel offers some perspective on the differences between the way animals and small children process numbers and the way adults do. As a researcher in numerical cognition, she tries to focus on how brains process numbers. Her research shows that Humans and animals actually share some remarkable numerical abilities – helping them make smart decisions about where to feed and where to take shelter. But as soon as language enters the picture, humans begin outperforming animals, revealing how words and digits underpin our advanced mathematical world. Silke Goebel, “Why animals recognise numbers but only humans can do maths” at The Conversation (July 28, 2021) Essentially, she says, there are two different types of counting…

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parrot

Do Birds Really Understand What They Are Saying?

Remarkable claims are made for some birds

Perhaps because parrots can carefully mimic human voices (and many other sounds), many claims are made for their intelligence For example, that they understand abstractions like currency: After training eight African grey parrots and six blue-headed macaws to barter metal rings for walnuts, the researchers paired the birds up with same-species partners. They then put the parrots in clear chambers joined by a transfer hole, and gave one bird—the donor—ten rings, while the other was left with none. Even without the promise of a reward for themselves, seven out of eight of the African grey parrot donors passed some of their available tokens through the transfer hole to their broke partners, usually shuttling them beak to beak. On average, about…

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Grey wolf in the forest

Why Do Dogs Understand People Better Than Wolves?

The difference in attitude to humans between dog pups and wolf pups was dramatically demonstrated in a recent study

Some enterprising researchers at Duke University decided to compare 44 dog pups with 37 wolf pups, between 5 and 18 weeks of age. Would the wolf pups behave the same way toward humans as the dog pups or differently? While the wolf pups got a lot of human interaction, including hand-feeding, sleeping in their caretakers’ beds and almost round-the-clock human care, the dog puppies lived mostly with their mothers and littermates. They had little human contact. Researchers hid treats in one of two bowls, then gave the dog or wolf a clue to find the food. Sometimes that included pointing and gazing in the direction where the food could be found. Even with no training, dogs as young as 8…

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The Earth from space. This image elements furnished by NASA.

Cornell: Earth Could Be Seen by ET Far More Easily Than Thought

Using analytic software, researchers can determine whether Earth would be visible from a given star system

According to Cornell and American Museum of Natural History researchers, “Scientists have identified 2,034 nearby star-systems — within the small cosmic distance of 326 light-years — that could find Earth merely by watching our pale blue dot cross our sun”: Scientists at Cornell University and the American Museum of Natural History have identified 2,034 nearby star-systems — within the small cosmic distance of 326 light-years — that could find Earth merely by watching our pale blue dot cross our sun. That’s 1,715 star-systems that could have spotted Earth since human civilization blossomed about 5,000 years ago, and 319 more star-systems that will be added over the next 5,000 years. Exoplanets around these nearby stars have a cosmic front-row seat to…

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Frightened guilty dog pug looking sad at camera.

Is Fear the Same Thing for a Human Being as for an Animal?

Psychiatrist Joseph Ledoux has thought about that; it’s a complex problem

Recently, we looked at consciousness from the perspective of Joseph LeDoux’s recent book, A Deep History of Ourselves (1919). Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett situates his work at Nature, offering an interesting qualification: LeDoux, an academic at New York University in New York City, is best known for his research on fear, and for carefully mapping the brain circuit centred on the amygdala — a knot of neurons in the medial temporal lobe. The amygdala, he showed, has a crucial role in non-conscious, defensive behaviour responses such as freezing or fleeing. His conclusion, based on the assumption that all mammalian amygdala circuits are structurally similar, was that all mammals (including humans) share these responses. He described this work in The Emotional…

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close up photo of green leafed plant

If You Do Something to a Plant, Will It Remember?

Depends. Plants turn out to be more and more like animals. NOT like people but like animals

Plants, we are learning, have internal means of remembering and keeping track of things: In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers from Nara Institute of Science and Technology have revealed that a family of proteins that control small heat shock genes enables plants to ‘remember’ how to deal with heat stress… “Heat stress is often repeating and changing,” says lead author of the study Nobutoshi Yamaguchi. “Once plants have undergone mild heat stress, they become tolerant and can adapt to further heat stress. This is referred to as heat stress ‘memory’ and has been reported to be correlated to epigenetic modifications.” Epigenetic modifications are inheritable changes in the way genes are expressed, and do not involve changes in the…

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Robotic man cyborg face representing artificial intelligence 3D rendering

How To Flummox an AI Neural Network

Kids can figure out the same-different distinction. So can ducklings and bees. But top AI can't.

Science writer John Pavlus identifies a key limitation of artificial intelligence: The first episode of Sesame Street in 1969 included a segment called “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.” Viewers were asked to consider a poster that displayed three 2s and one W, and to decide — while singing along to the game’s eponymous jingle — which symbol didn’t belong. Dozens of episodes of Sesame Street repeated the game, comparing everything from abstract patterns to plates of vegetables. Kids never had to relearn the rules. Understanding the distinction between “same” and “different” was enough. Machines have a much harder time. One of the most powerful classes of artificial intelligence systems, known as convolutional neural networks or CNNs,…

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Live lobster in the aquarium. Product in the supermarket. Close up photo of big lobsters in water tank for sale

Can Crabs Think? Can Lobsters Feel? What We Know Now

In Switzerland, it is now illegal to boil a lobster alive. Are the Swiss right? Is it cruel?

Because crustaceans have shells, we may tend to think of them as like machines. Yet crustaceans, along with octopuses, show some surprising abilities and complexities. Take crabs, for example: A new Swansea University study has revealed how common shore crabs can navigate their way around a complex maze and can even remember the route in order to find food … Spatial learning is quite complicated, so figuring out how it works in crustaceans gives us a better understanding of how widespread this ability, and learning in general, is in the animal kingdom.” The researchers tested 12 crabs over four weeks, placing food at the end of the maze each time. The route to the end of the maze required five…