THE BLOG
12/13/2013 01:14 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2014

Do Dolphins Even Want to Talk to Us?

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

The Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) device being developed by Denise Herzing is exactly the kind of cutting-edge tech that makes researchers studying dolphin communication (like me) salivate. I'd love to get my hands on a wearable device that can process dolphin signals in real time, and have information available to me via a heads up display, or audio transmitted to my ear via bone conduction. It's cool stuff. But will this device be the key to establishing two-way communication with dolphins?

Teaching animals to use artificial symbols to label objects and concepts, which is one of the goals of the CHAT project, has led to successful two-way communication with other species. For example, Kanzi the bonobo can point to hundreds of symbols on his lexigram board to convey his thoughts and desires. But similar attempts to teach dolphins to use symbols have not resulted in much success.

During the 1980s and 1990s, researchers like Diana Reiss working at Marine World and Ken Marten at Project Delphis taught dolphins to use symbol keyboards, artificial whistles, and underwater touch screens with limited success in establishing two-way communication. Disney patented an enormous underwater keyboard device in the mid-1990s, but abandoned their two-way communication work after a few months when it was clear that the dolphins were just not that into working with the symbols. The dolphins involved in these projects had no trouble learning the associations between the symbols and their meaning, but they didn't seem all that keen on manipulating the symbols to establish communication with the researchers.

It might well be that dolphins simply lack the inherent drive to share their inner mental lives with others via symbols. -- Justin Gregg


Thanks to Louis Herman's research, we know that dolphins have the ability to comprehend symbols and symbol combinations at a level that rivals that of the great apes. But Herman avoided testing for his dolphins' ability to use their symbol systems to communicate or make requests of the researchers - a smart tactic that allowed him tighter control over his experiments, and produced iron-clad evidence of dolphins' symbol comprehension skills.

Since dolphins are so skilled at symbol comprehension, why have scientists had such a hard time establishing two-way communication? And what might our past failures tell us about what's going on inside the dolphin mind?

Dolphins are supremely social creatures, displaying similar kinds of complex social cognition to the great apes. But it might well be that dolphins simply lack the inherent drive to share their inner mental lives with others via symbols. This is the defining characteristic of the human species, and our unquenchable need to share our thoughts with others evolved in lockstep with our capacity for language.

We know that dolphins have a strong desire to seek out and socially engage with humans, which is a testament to the kind of social minds they possess. And it's this social drive that allows Herzing and her team to interact so closely with wild dolphins for their research. But the dolphin mind evolved over millions of years to solve dolphin problems in a dolphin world, and not human problems. If they fail to engage in the kind of two-way conversations we wish they would, it tells us that social intelligence can evolve in the absence of a need or desire to share complex information with peers.

Maybe dolphins do have both the capacity and desire for communicating their thoughts with humans, but researchers have been approaching the problem in the wrong way. Maybe our technology has been too slow. Maybe we've just not figured out a way to create a symbol system that works in an aquatic environment, or that is presented in a way that appeals to dolphins. With the introduction of the CHAT device in a wild setting, Herzing and her team are helping us to address these problems.

Scientists have high hopes that Herzing's new device will generate the kind of two-way symbol work that has eluded researchers in the past. But even this cutting edge device and the innovative social-rivalry research design being built around it could result in dolphins displaying the same kind of indifference to using artificial symbols for communicating with humans that we've seen in the past. The conclusion we might one day reach is that two-way communication is difficult because the dolphins themselves just aren't interested in using symbols to communicate with us.

Whatever Herzing and her team should discover, and no matter how the dolphins react to the CHAT device, science will have gained valuable insight into the nature of the dolphin mind. It's exactly these types of innovative projects that drive science forward, inspire the public's imagination, and spark the kind of academic and public discussion that leads to new ways of thinking about the science of animal minds.

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