biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow animal communication

Talking to the Animals

Dr Dolittle was not the only one who could do that

What are the essentials of “communication”? Of course, there has to be an emitter, a sender of a signal. But there also needs to be a receiver and in order to make the interaction between the two to agree with the definition of “communication”, there has to be a response of a sort. It’s easy to see a response, when you send a vocal signal like “you are beautiful” to someone or when you ask someone “wasn’t that a great movie”?

However, responses may also occur that are invisible to the sender, because they may result in a change of the recipient’s heartbeat frequency or blood hormone level or amount of digestive juices secreted (think of Pavlov’s experiments with dogs). There, however, are people who claim or who have demonstrated to be able to recognize some almost imperceptible responses of an animal that receives signals from a human: the horse whisperer Buck Brannaman comes to mind. Yet, he’s not the only animal whisperer, because nowadays you can find dog whisperers, cat whisperers and even fish whisperers on the internet, modern Dr. Dolittles, who speak to the animals. Or is it perhaps the other way around: humans as the receivers of an animal’s signal?

There is a famous example of how a human got fooled by a horse known as “Hans”, and appropriately nicknamed “Clever Hans”. This animal, it was claimed by the owner Wilhelm von Osten, who was a teacher of mathematics in Germany, could count and understand arithmetic as it provided correct answers to questions of subtraction and additions and multiplications by tapping on the ground with one its hoofs. The amazing horse genius was exhibited in shows for which von Osten never charged any money and the equine became so famous that a commission was set up to investigate whether there wasn’t some fraud involved. Members of the commission included a veterinarian, a circus manager, a cavalry officer, some school teachers and the director of the Zoological Garden of Berlin.

The commission’s conclusion in 1904 was that trickery could be ruled out and that the horse’s behaviour remained unexplained. The psychologist and animal behaviourist Oskar Pfungst then followed up research on the horse and determined that even if the questions were given to the horse in writing or by people other than the horse’s owner “Clever Hans” still produced the correct answers. What was going on? An important clue came from the observation that only when the questioner knew the correct answer and the horse could see the questioner the horse gave the correct answer. Pfungst concluded that the horse must have noticed something subtle, involuntary in the behaviour of the questioner that gave it a clue to stop tapping the ground with its hoof. Clever Hans indeed. It seemed that once the taps had reached the correct number, the questioner’s attitude relaxed or his mouth or some muscle twitched – in any case, sufficient of a signal for the horse to stop tapping.

To prove that he, Pfungst, was right he “played to be the horse” and, asking students to think of a number, would then tap out the answer with his hand. He noticed that as he had reached the correct number of taps there was a very slight head movement of the person who had been thinking of the number. Pfungst had thus seemingly shown an ability to “read the minds” of others, but in reality had debunked the notion of Clever Hans’ exceptional ability and the belief in mind-reading. That subtle, almost imperceptible signals can contribute to communication between individuals, be they human or animal, is now an accepted fact and suggests that Dr Dolittle’s claim that he could “talk to the animals” is not too far off the mark. However, what’s still not investigated is whether us humans can also communicate with invertebrates, like Paul the octopus perhaps or honey bees or a jumping spider.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2020.
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