Monday, January 24, 2005

Being Dr Doolittle

Learning more than most of us typically know about communicating with animals is fundamental to a fully human existence. So an interview with Jim Nollman in the Jan/Feb issue of Resurgence is worth attention. Nollman is a musician who works on interspecies communication (see here).

Many people’s knee jerk reaction will be: New Age nonsense!

There are more than a few fruit cakes into this sort of thing, but it looks as if Nollman is not one of them. His work with wolves (ragas and Miles Davis), butcher-birds ( a twelve tone scale, melodic invention) looks interesting. Most attention grabbing is some of the work with whales:

For three summers we had Tibetan lamas with us [on research trip], who would sing their Buddhist prayers into the water. I have to say the whales seemed to relate to them differently than they every related to the musicians, in that they became quiet. They’d come up to the boat and simply listen, which is something they never did with the musicians.

The Jan/Feb edition of Resurgence magazine is – as usual – much like any other edition of Resurgence though with an exceptionally beautiful cover that reminds me of Palau. Articles by Crispin Tickell, James Lovelock, Stephan Harding and Mary Midgley explore familiar ground, again (Midgley had a better piece in the 25 Dec edition of New Scientist, looking at the historical roots of creationism and its symbiotic relationship with the bogus science of social darwinism).

The Nollman article brought back into my fragmented mind comments by Joseph LeDoux (a neuroscientist at NYU and author of The Synaptic Self) in a 4 Jan article for the NY Times in which ten scientists talked about what they believed but could not prove:

For me, this is an easy question. I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it. We can't even prove that other people are conscious, much less other animals. In the case of other people, though, we at least can have a little confidence since all people have brains with the same basic configurations. But as soon as we turn to other species and start asking questions about feelings and consciousness in general we are in risky territory because the hardware is different.

Because I have reason to think that their feelings might be different than ours, I prefer to study emotional behavior in rats rather than emotional feelings.

There's lots to learn about emotion through rats that can help people with emotional disorders. And there's lots we can learn about feelings from studying humans, especially now that we have powerful function imaging techniques. I'm not a radical behaviorist. I'm just a practical emotionalist.

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