Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

CategoryNatural Intelligence

live house fly

How Do Insects Use Their Very Small Brains To Think Clearly?

How do they engage in complex behaviour with only 100.000 to a million neurons?

If we had a skeleton that was outside, not inside, our body — and six legs — we might find it easier to understand how insects think. But only a bit easier. Despite complex behavior, insects are working with 100,000 to maybe a million neurons, compared to our, maybe, 86 billion — but insects make the most of what they have. Consider, for example, the dragonfly. How does it manage to deal with all the issues that a fighter pilot must address, while catching prey? One adaptation is specialized neurons: Dragonflies (order Odonata) and hoverflies (order Diptera) are among insect flyers equipped with special neurons for targeting with optic flow. “The ability of insects to successfully pursue targets in clutter…

Monarch Butterfly Congregation 2

Can Animal Behavior Simply Be Transferred Into the Genome?

For example, how do Monarch butterflies from Canada get to the same trees in Mexico as their great-grandparents landed in?

Recently, geologist Casey Luskin interviewed Eric Cassell, author of Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021) on one of the central mysteries of biology: How do animals “know” things that they can’t have figured out on their own? Here’s the first part, with transcript and notes. Below is the second part, which looks at some “how” questions. Eric Cassell is an expert in navigation systems, including GPS whose experience includes more than four decades of experience in systems engineering related to aircraft, navigation and safety. He has long had an interest in animal navigation. His model for animal navigation is the natural algorithm: The animal’s brain is “programmed” to enable navigation. Here’s Part II of our…

Common octopus in large sea water aquarium

Science Paper: Could Octopuses Be Aliens From Outer Space?

It’s the octopus’s intelligence that causes such usual theses to float in the science literature

A 2018 science paper that suggests that the brainy cephalopod might have originated off the planet has been receiving new attention. The basic thesis is that the Cambrian Explosion, which produced most of the basic animal life forms we see today, was the outcome of extraterrestrial viruses carried on a meteor that crashed onto Earth 540 million years ago. The underlying theory is panspermia, a hypothesis espoused by Francis Crick, that some viruses and bacteria travel on the tails of comets or meteors and may take root on planets: These comets could have introduced Earth to novel life-forms that evolved on other planets, including viruses, durable microorganisms like unearthly tardigrades or, as the new study suggests, even fertilized animal eggs…

Closeup of a red wood ant. Concept useful insects.

Neuroscience Mystery: How Do Tiny Brains Enable Complex Behavior?

Eric Cassell notes that insects with brains of only a million neurons exhibit principles found only in the most advanced man-made navigation systems. How?

Recently, geologist Casey Luskin interviewed Eric Cassell, author of Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021) on one of the central mysteries: How do animals “know” things that they can’t have figured out on their own? Consider, for example, butterflies migrating over several generations from Canada to Mexico and back. No single butterfly makes the whole trip there or back. How can animals do math they know nothing about? How can a great deal of information be packed into a brain with comparatively few neurons? We are slowly learning about some of that. Eric Cassell is an expert in navigation systems, including GPS, whose experience includes more than four decades in systems engineering related to aircraft,…

Puppy pressing his paw against a Girl hand

Dogs Understand Many More Words Than We Think

They also pick up very readily on human emotions, researchers have found

Sophie Jacques, Associate Professor, Psychology and Neuroscience, Dalhousie University, came up with some interesting figures on dogs recognizing words. Starting in 2015, she and a colleague developed a list of 172 words organized in different categories (for example, toys, food, commands, outdoor places) and gave it to an online sample of 165 owners of family and professional dogs. We asked them to select words that their dogs responded to consistently. We found that, on average, service dogs respond to about 120 words, whereas family pets respond to about 80 words, ranging between 15 to 215 words across all dogs. We also found that certain breed groups, such as herding dogs like border collies and toy dogs like chihuahuas, respond to…

Black Chimpanzee Mammal Ape

Chimps Who Can’t Crack Nuts Prove They Are More Like Humans? Huh?

The lengths to which some researchers will go to attempt to discredit human exceptionalism are an assault on reason and common sense

In a recent experiment, researchers determined that chimpanzees need to be taught how to use stones to crack nuts; individuals don’t grasp the idea for themselves. In a series of four experiments, 35 parties of chimps were given oil palm nuts and stones but “on no occasion did the chimpanzees crack or eat either oil palm or Coula nuts,” presumably because they did not know how. Then the primatologists go on to draw an amazing conclusion: Their culture is therefore more similar to human culture than often assumed… “Our findings suggest that chimpanzees acquire cultural behaviors more like humans and do not simply invent a complex tool use behavior like nut cracking on their own,” says Koops. The presence of…

coconut octopus underwater macro portrait on sand

Loving Goodbye… From an Octopus?

Did the octopus really know she was dying? Was she trying to say goodbye?

The film My Octopus Teacher (2020) paved the way for studying the intelligence of the remarkable eight-armed creature. One outcome has been more attention paid to other remarkable stories of human–octopus friendships. At Hakai Magazine, we learn about a part-time science teacher who befriended an octopus and learned a sad truth about her eight-armed companion: One of the first octopuses Nitz raised was an algae octopus (Abdopus aculeatus) she named the Once-ler after the narrator of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. She and her daughters would stand in front of the Once-ler’s tank and wave their whole arms as though they were undulating blades of kelp. Eventually, the Once-ler started waving back, imitating their movements with a single arm while…

Crab close up, Cuba

How Could We Know If an Octopus or Lobster Felt Pain?

Researchers found that, when it comes to awareness, octopuses were the stars, followed by lobsters, crayfish, crabs, etc.

Some researchers, commissioned to find out, offered their wrap-up thoughts at Phys.org recently. They started applying the same standards to octopuses as are applied to mammals that are lab animals. Specifically, they used eight criteria for determining sentience — in the sense that, if you did the same thing to a dog and got the same reaction, would you assume it was pain? The results have been interesting: We found the strongest evidence for sentience in cephalopods. Octopuses were the stars. With around 170 million brain cells, they have higher brain-to-body ratios than most reptiles and fish. This allows octopuses to perform remarkable feats of learning and memory. Octopuses also behave in ways that point strongly to experiences of pain.…

Chorus sheet music

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” Christmas Music is All in Your Mind

Is music a matter of matter and energy alone, or is there something more to the story?

What better time than the Christmas season to explore immaterial realities of the human mind? A perfect example to consider is Christmas music. It’s everywhere during the holiday season. But what exactly is music? Described in purely physical terms, music is what humans sometimes perceive from the vibrations of air. Individual pieces of music are described less in physical terms and more in subjective terms using words that reflect how humans experience music in their minds. Eight key elements of music fall mostly into the category of qualia, i.e., experiences that occur in the hearers’ minds only: Dynamics, Form, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, Texture, Timbre and Tonality. Do you know the Christmas song “We Three Kings” when you hear it? Written in 1857, the song has been arranged…

Ant action standing.Ant bridge unity team,Concept team work together

A Navigator Asks Animals: How Do You Find Your Way?

The results are amazing. Many life forms do math they know nothing about

In “New book spotlights high tech animal navigation,” aircraft navigator Eric Cassell, speaking recently with geologist Casey Luskin on his new book, Animal Algorithms: Evolution and the Mysterious Origin of Ingenious Instincts (2021)Animals “know” things that there is no way they thought of themselves — or that their parents did. The problem with the “nature or nurture?” debate we all learned about in Psychology 101 is that the debate doesn’t matter. There’s no such simple explanation for how animals learn things like this: … my favorite example is actually in, uh, a desert ant that resides in deserts in Africa, and these ants actually employ several different types of navigation centers. They use a sun compass, a polarized light compass.…


Would Cognition in Bacteria “Dethrone” Humans?

A cognition researcher’s approach to the question helps account for the growing popularity of panpsychism — as an alternative

Adelaide University cognition researcher Pamela Lyon offered an interesting thesis at Aeon last month: “Cognition did not appear out of nowhere in ‘higher’ animals but goes back millions, perhaps billions, of years.” Given that several scientists have recently made claims for cognition in single-celled entities, her contention is not all that surprising. But her approach to the topic prompts some thought: Lyon, who has little time for doubters, invokes Charles Darwin in calling for a “Copernican” shift in thinking on the subject: In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin draws a picture of the long sweep of evolution, from the beginning of life, playing out along two fundamental axes: physical and mental. Body and mind. All living beings,…


British Government Moves To Protect Octopuses From Cruelty

The move to protect cephalopods and crabs/lobsters follows from research showing their intelligence and awareness of pain

Following a report from the London School of Economics and Political Science, the British government has decided to extend animal protection laws to include “cephalopods (including octopuses, squid and cuttlefish) and decapods (including crabs, lobsters and crayfish).” No, this is not just another nut moment along the lines of “Salad is plant murder!” There’s a background: Researchers have discovered in recent decades that some invertebrates, especially those with complex central nervous systems, are much more intelligent and capable of experiencing pain (sentient) than we used to think. As George Dvorsky explains at Gizmodo, the British government introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in May. The bill defined sentient animals as animals with backbones (vertebrates). However, scientists have known for some…

Female humpback whale with calf

Can AI Help Us Talk to Whales? Maybe. But Then What?

In the real world, if we succeed in communicating with whales, it will be much like communicating successfully with dogs, cats, and horses. None of them are furry people.

A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine holds out the hope that AI can help enable us to talk with whales: The clicks of sperm whales are ideal candidates for attempting to decode their meanings—not just because, unlike continuous sounds that other whale species produce, they are easy to translate into ones and zeros. The animals dive down into the deepest ocean depths and communicate over great distances, so they cannot use body language and facial expressions, which are important means of communication for other animals. “It is realistic to assume that whale communication is primarily acoustic,” says Bronstein. Sperm whales have the largest brains in the animal kingdom, six times the size of ours. When two of these animals…

3D medical background with virus cells

Neuroscientist: Even Viruses Are Intelligent

Antonio Damasio says, in the excerpt from his new book, that — based on the evidence — we cannot deny viruses “some fraction” of intelligence

University of Chicago biochemist James Shapiro’s just-published paper concludes that bacteria, based on their behavior, are cognitive, which means that they are aware in some sense, perhaps some would say, intelligent. What about viruses? Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, in an excerpt from his recent book, Feeling & Knowing, that we can also credit some sort of intelligence to viruses: Viruses cannot reproduce on their own, but they can invade living organisms, hijack their life systems, and multiply. In brief, they are not living but can become parasitic of the living and make a “pseudo” living while, in most instances, destroying the life that allows them to continue their ambiguous existence and promoting the manufacture and dissemination of “their” nucleic acids.…


University of Chicago Biochemist: All Living Cells Are Cognitive

James Shapiro’s recent paper points out, with examples, that bacteria meet the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “cognitive”

University of Chicago biochemist and evolutionary biologist James Shapiro has a message that those who believe that consciousness is an illusion (as, for example, philosopher Daniel Dennett claims) should heed: If all living things are “cognitive” then, to what extent would life itself have to be an illusion? Something’s wrong there. Let’s follow the thread of what Shapiro is saying. He takes a simple approach: If bacteria and archaea, thought to be the oldest, simplest life forms from at least 2 billion years ago, can be shown to have cognitive processes, then it stands to reason that most (if not all) of the more complex life forms have them too: All living cells sense and respond to changes in external…

Green Bacteria Colony

Neuroscientist: Nervous Systems Alone Do Not Cause Consciousness

Antonio Damasio, author of Feeling & Knowing (2021), points to the whole body as involved in consciousness

Prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, considered “a leader in understanding the biological origin of consciousness,” wrote in The Scientist yesterday that “The idea that minds and consciousness might be generated by the nervous system alone is false. In his view, the whole body is involved in consciousness: Attempts to understand consciousness exclusively in terms of neural activity have failed and are, in good part, responsible for the belief held by some scientists and educated laypeople that consciousness is an inexplicable mystery. It is likely true that consciousness only emerges in organisms endowed with nervous systems, but it is just as true that consciousness also requires abundant interactions between those systems and many non-nervous parts of the organism Antonio Damasio, “Opinion: Being,…

white marble statue of man with beard in detail

Coming to the Defense of Classical Logic

Classical logic belongs to everyone and can be equally wielded by anyone

It seems odd that classical logic would need defending, but, in modern times, this seems to indeed be the case. Many modern scholars see the need for demoting the place of classical logic and viewing it as an aspect of western cultural imperialism. In reality, classical logic is a gift to civilization. It was created in the classical west, but its benefit is that it belongs to everyone and can be equally wielded by anyone who chooses to do so. Many critics of classical logic, like critics of mathematics, have both problematic and justifiable complaints. It is true that many people use classical logic incorrectly, and then use the authority of classical logic as the justification for problematic statements. In…

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…

dog at grave of tom sayer
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…

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.…