Will humans ever be able to talk to animals?

Is thinking unique to humans? Probably not, but we may never know.
Christopher McFadden
Wade Brooks/Flickr

Does your cat think about the meaning of life? Do chimpanzees believe in a creator? While many animals on our planet clearly have some form of intelligence, just how unique are we as human beings?

Let's take a quick dive into one of the least understood aspects of the animal kingdom - what goes on in their minds...

Do animals think?

For anyone who has a pet cat or a dog, or other pet, it is natural for them to wonder what, if anything, their furry little friends think about. Clearly, animals have brains and some are remarkably similar to our own, but do they have the same "software" to comprehend the world as we do?

We know many animals like elephants or chimpanzees are probably not dumb, but many scientists who specialize in this area warn us not to humanize animals too much. 

do animals think chimp
Are chimps able to think? Source: Seth Youngblood/Flickr

Clive Wynne, a British-Australian ethnologist specializing in the behavior of dogs and their wild relatives, is one of them. In his book "Do Animals Think?", Wynne explains that while it may be romantic to ascribe human qualities to other animals, it is not very realistic. 

Animals, he explains, do not have a "theory-of-mind" as we do. This means they are not conscious of what others are thinking nor do they have the capacity for higher-level reasoning. The classic analogy for this is your innate ability to understand that another human is happy, in distress, or their favorite food is spaghetti bolognese, to name but a few things.

But, are animals able to perform this apparently simple ability? It turns out, apparently not - at least not the level we can do so easily. 

So, when your pet dog nudges your leg it is probably doing it to get something, like its dinner, rather than attempting to give you moral support for whatever it is that is bothering you at the time. Though, some researchers do believe that social animals, like dogs, may have some limited capacity for empathy. But more on that later. 

However, that is not to say that animals are not capable of some remarkable things. As Wynne explains in his book, honeybees, for example, are able to perform functions akin to "remembering" where they found some food. Some other studies have even shown that honeybees are able to recognize and remember different human faces. 

Honeybees are, of course, also able to share information with their hive mates using a special dance.

Bats are able to locate their prey at night using sonar, catch them, and eat them - all while airborne. Such abilities require some very specific mental functions that would be beyond most of us. 

But these activities aren't really forms of abstract thinking as we would understand it. So, what exactly is thinking?

What is thinking?

This is a notoriously tricky area to define, but the very act of asking such a question is, in fact, an example of it. However, that's not really a satisfactory answer. 

"Thinking is the ultimate cognitive activity, consciously using our brains to make sense of the world around us and decide how to respond to it. Unconsciously our brains are still 'thinking' and this is a part of the cognitive process, but is not what we normally call 'thinking'," suggests the website Changing Minds.

do animals think birds
Can other animals, like birds, actually think?Source: Gabriel Caparo/Flickr

In this sense, you can think of "thinking" as the series of conscious cognitive processes that happen in your head with or without sensory stimulation. Such processes will usually involve processes like rational judgement, reasoning, concept formation, problem-solving, and deliberation. But other mental processes, like considering an idea, memory, or imagination, are also often included. 

Studies of human brains have been able to map out the cellular and synaptic activities in the brain and pick out certain pathways. While deceptively simple physiologically, the complex outcomes that can be achieved can be quite remarkable. 

This relatively simple process enables us to experience "thoughts" and "reasoning" as we seek to connect what we sense with our inner world of understanding, and hence do and say things that will change the outer world.

"Our ability to think develops naturally in early life. When we interact with others, it becomes directed, for example when we learn values from our parents and knowledge from our teachers. We learn that it is good to think in certain ways and bad to think in other ways. Indeed, to be accepted into a social group, we are expected to think and act in ways that are harmonious with the group culture," according to Changing Minds.

So, do animals experience similar processes?

While they may not ponder the meaning of life as we do, there is a large body of evidence that animals, to a greater or lesser degree, can actually think. We can all get a sense of this by observing animals like cats or dogs, and even birds. 

They show clear signs of fear, joy, and play, for example. These kinds of "feelings" are, to many scientists, a clear sign that they have some similar mental processes to us. Many other animals are even able to solve problems and remember the solution, including abstract puzzles like mazes. 

"It is incredible to me there is still a debate over whether animals are conscious and even a debate over whether human beings can know animals are conscious. If you watch mammals or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when there’s danger. They relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love." explains Carl Safina in an interview with National geographic

can animals reason monkey
Thinking, as we know it, might be uniquely human. Source: Juan Salmoral/Flickr

So, in light of this, is it a more accurate question is to ask whether animals are able to experience mental processes beyond simply reacting to stimuli or basic survival?

Let's see if we can glean an insight into what might be going on in their minds. 

What, if anything, do animals think about?

In the vast majority of cases, just like us, animals probably think about the basic necessities of life. Where is their next meal coming from? Is that other animal a threat? I am thirsty, etc. 

As we touched upon earlier, years of dedicated observations of animals have shown that they experience many traits similar to our own species like empathy, depression, joy, curiosity, etc, and that these appear to be fairly common in various animal species. 

Some species have even shown an ability to experiment to solve problems. So much so, in fact, that some species of great apes, like the chimpanzee, may have even entered their very own "Stone Age" - though this is hotly debated.

This kind of activity, while underpinned by a basic need to survive, requires some level of cognition and the ability to make rational judgements. 

Other great apes have even been able to learn and communicate using human sign language. However, it should be noted that many experts now believe that the subject of one such study, Nim Chimpsky (a play on Noam Chomsky's name), was probably only imitating his teacher. Nim never managed to spontaneously create sentences of its own, nor was he able to "communicate" beyond the first and second person. 

In other words, demanding things from "you" to "me", like food. 

To some, like Chomsky himself, this should not be very surprising as, according to Chomsky, language as we know it is a uniquely human affair. Language, remember, is a set of rules used to convey information from one individual to another. It is, to put it another way, codified, and requires to recipient to know the rules in order to comprehend the message. 

can only humans think
Source: Frank Lindecke/Flickr

It is not clear, to say the least, that other intelligent animals have this type of "language". While most animal species do communicate to a greater or lesser degree, it is not language as we understand it.  

But is language that important? If our species is anything to go by, then it is probably a prerequisite to being able to not only think, but share information with other individuals within your group. 

Without this basic and powerful ability, individuals are not able to properly share their feelings, thoughts, and ideas. It may even be the case that language emerged specifically for this purpose. 

If animals are not able to perform this on even a basic level, it is, according to some experts, a clear sign that they have not evolved the mental processes for thought as we know it. Otherwise, they'd also have evolved the mechanisms to share it with others - as with we have. 

However, there is also a growing body of evidence to show that animals may very well think without the need for language - at least on a more "brute force" level. 

For example, when you are sick and lying in bed, your dog may bring you a toy, or stay with you to keep you company. They appear to understand, on some level, that something is wrong with you and even seem to sympathize with your plight. While this is not the same as empathy (which requires a theory of mind), it does show a level of external awareness. 

And this is seen in other species of animals beyond our "best friends". 

Take the octopus, for example. Another of the animal kingdom's great problem-solvers, octopi also show at least a glimpse that they may experience fear, love, and trust too. 

In the Netflix documentary "My Octopus Teacher", a human diver was able to build something of a friendship with a small female octopus. Quite how emotionally attached the animal came to the human can never be known, but it is evident that some form of "thinking" was being displayed by it. 

can animals think octopus
The most unlikely of connections can be made with some animals, like octopi. Source: Elias Levy/Flickr

Amazingly, connections akin to what we would think of as empathy are seen between other species too. Elephants, for example, have been documented helping beleaguered human beings, for example. 

In one particular case, a partially sighted woman got lost. She was apparently found by a herd of elephants who decided to protect and guard her until more humans would arrive. They even managed to build a sort of cage of branches to protect her from hyenas. 

Humpback whales have also been documented protecting seals from killer whales. This all seems very extraordinary for us, but animals have probably been doing this sort of thing for millions of years.

It is also a behavior very recognizable to us human beings. Many of us are almost unconsciously driven to help out animals in need - if we don't intend on eating them of course. 

Do animals have emotions? 

You probably have a view of this, but most people believe that animals experience something similar to what we call emotions. But, what are they really? 

Sadly, this is not a very easy thing to define. Broadly defined as, "a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behavior", this cold definition of emotion doesn't really answer the question satisfactorily. Emotions are clearly a real thing, but the lack of consensus on how to define them makes it very difficult for us to attempt to observe them among our cohabitants on Earth - animals. 

Cats are easily scared, dogs show clear signs of separation anxiety, and caged wild animals often show signs of boredom, for example. We intuitively understand these things, but it is much harder to quantify them using scientific analysis. 

dogs show emotion
You know when your dog is happy, sad, or embarrassed. Source: Matt Miller/Flickr

Physical reactions like changes in muscle tone, posture, gait, facial expression, eye size and gaze, vocalization, changes in odor, and group behavioral changes can be observed and measured, but it is less easy to correlate such things to what is actually going on inside their brains.

Until, and unless, we are actually able to communicate effectively with animals, this vital connection will likely be beyond our capabilities for some time to come.  

So, how close are we to being able to "get inside" the heads of animals

Will we ever understand animals' feelings?

As we've previously touched upon, while we can make some qualitative and quantitative observations of animals and their behavior, it is very difficult to know for sure what an animal is actually "feeling" in its brain. In fact, it might be the case that most animals don't actually "feel" emotions at all. 

Feelings like pain, hunger, thirst, fear, envy, are quite common in the animal kingdom, but these are more basic reactions to a situation rather than emotions per se. However, there does appear to be a correlation in the animal world between the presence of other, less instinctual mental processes, and complex social networks

Elephants, dogs, and primates, for example, show some close similarities with human beings in their mental functions. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as these are all social animals, like humans.

Empathy, or something very close to it, seems to be quite common in animals that live in social groups of one kind or another. This makes sense, as it would be evolutionarily beneficial to actually "care" for other members of your own species, especially close relatives. 

elephants and empathy
Elephants are one of the few animals that appear to show empathy. Source: snarglebarf/Flickr

This is probably a very important factor in the evolution of our own species too, laying the foundations for what would day become the earliest civilizations. 

If other animals have the capacity for empathy, or their version of it, then does this mean they are able to experience other emotions, perhaps even perform some higher brain functions that we might recognize as thinking? Some believe so. However, as is often warned in many fields of science, we have to be very careful not to "anthropomorphize" another species and its behaviors. 

Our species is, to put it bluntly, very special indeed. No other species on the planet is able to perform the level of thinking that we can and create both functional (i.e. useful tools) and artistic objects (i.e. non-vital or luxury objects) on the scale and size we have throughout our history.

In fact, the latter, the apparent "need" to create art is a uniquely human affair that has not genuinely been observed in any other living creature on Earth. We may never really know why art arose as a phenomenon, but it is clear that it requires some form of "theory of mind" as a prerequisite - i.e. art is made to be seen and admired by others.

While some form of creativity has been observed in other animals, like elephants, it is hotly debated if this is "real" or a "trained" behavior

Additionally, while other animals can change their environment to some extent, either directly or indirectly, this pales in comparison to what our species can do consciously. But we have a rather unfair advantage over other animals in this respect - our extraordinarily large brains compared to our body size. 

Human beings have an encephalization quotient (EQ) in the order of 7.5. Encephalization is the relative brain size of an animal, measured as the ratio between actual brain size and predicted brain mass for an animal of a given size. For example, larger animals can be expected to have larger brains. Values greater than 1.0 indicate a larger brain than expected for that body size.

To put that figure into perspective, chimps have an EQ of around 2.5, cats have an EQ of 1.0, and bottlenose dolphins have an EQ of 5.3. All well and good, but human brains are also quite literally, wired differently. 

Something called the FOXP2 gene is present in most species. This gene provides instructions for making a protein that controls the activity of other genes. This protein, in effect, acts as a dimmer switch which helps determine to what extent other genes are expressed. Mutations in this gene have also been linked to the development of the brain's language and speech networks.

This has been verified in the lab by artificially altering the gene to find out what happens. In mice, for example, genetic manipulation of the gene shows a marked reduction in the vocalization of mice pups. 

About 200,000 years ago, a mutation in this gene appears to have occurred in our species, becoming commonplace in our population within only 1,000 generations. It was clearly a beneficial mutation. 

"The consensus among scientists is that the FOXP2 gene has been the target of heavy selection during recent human evolution because it changed the way our brain was wired for communication," explains Denise D. Cummins,  a cognitive scientist, in a Scientific American article. And this really is critical. 

animal comms mice
Mice are pretty smart for their size. Source: Hy'Shqa/Flickr

Our brains have also become highly specialized, with certain regions dedicated to processes like language to a much greater degree than in other animals, like chimps. However, this may have come at a very significant cost - our almost uniquely high susceptibility to mental disorders like schizophrenia

We have taken a very different evolutionary pathway to pretty much all other animals on the planet. For this reason, our ability to communicate using things like languages is far beyond the capacity of any other animal. For this reason, many experts in the field are very confident we can never actually "talk" to other animals in any meaningful way. 

So, it appears that begin able to actually "ask" an animal how it feels is looking pretty unlikely. Of course, this doesn't mean animals don't have emotions and feelings. 

We are the product of the same evolutionary processes as every other creature on this planet. If we have emotions, and they clearly develop naturally, then it follows that other animals should have at least some feelings too, right? 

But how would we ever be able to find out? Since talking to them is out, what else can we do? 

Scientists have been attempting to learn how to communicate with animals for a very long time, with varying success. Our closest relatives, the great apes, have even shown some ability to pick up communication methods like sign language and provide some very basic level of interaction with human beings. 

Pet owners will also be more than familiar with the ability to have some very basic interaction with their dog or cat, for example. In many instances, dogs, for example, can be trained to respond to some verbal commands. 

However, it is important to note that this is more a case of your pet connecting a series of sounds, or a particular tone, with a good or bad outcome - like getting a treat or being punished in some way. It also works the other way around. 

what do cats think about
Does your cat judge you? We may never know for sure. Source: Paul Padschewscky/Flickr

You innately understand the difference between a growling angry dog and a happy one, for example. 

However, as we've previously discussed, codified language might be a uniquely human "software function" and trying to teach other animals how we communicate could be a forlorn hope. A better approach would be for us to learn how to speak "their" tongue. 

Is this possible? 

Sort of.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, have been able to develop a "computerized doggy vest" that, so they claim, allows humans to "talk" to dogs. Technically called "animal-computer interaction", this device has been developed to help assistance dogs ask for help if they, or their owner, get into trouble. 

However, such a device is more of a trick that a dog can be taught to activate when needed. A far more sophisticated approach is currently in development by researchers at Northern Arizona University. 

The team, led by Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, is working on a sophisticated algorithm that can "translate" animal sounds, body language, and expressions into human language when, for example, the animal is in pain or hungry, etc. 

While very much in its infancy, such technology would prove revolutionary for human-animal interactions, but would still fall very short of being able to engage in a conversation. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is another promising field, but this also relies on making analogies with human brains or associating observed behaviors with what can be seen in the scans. 

Both of which involve the "use" of the very unique wiring seen in the human brain. This may be something of a "Catch 22," ultimately limiting research in this field.

So, while thinking and feeling are very common human traits, it is not clear if any other animal experiences the world as we do. While we do have a massive advantage, our huge brains, this may only enable us to think about the world as human beings do, not as animals do. In other words, our mental "hardware" and "software" might be incompatible with the way other animals think and see the world. 

For this reason, it may be the case that we can never truly understand or communicate effectively with other animals on Earth, at least with our current understanding of what consciousness is.

But, if history is anything to go by, it may only be a matter of time before some major breakthrough in human-animal communication is made. We shall have to wait and see. 

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