One of the most persistently amazing things about modern science has been its ability to cut humanity loose from the limitations of our immediate caveperson consciousness.  Mathematicians probe multi-dimensional vector spaces we can’t begin to visualize, and physicists catalogue the properties of elaborate invisible fields that give rise to fundamental forces, which are all astounding feats of human abstraction, but what I find to be one of the late Twentieth Century’s most profound expansions of our perception has been the attempt of behaviorists and neuroscientists to understand the cognitive capacities of non-human animals and create new scales of intelligence to evaluate those animals on their own evolutionary terms, as the clever beings they are, rather than the “failed humans” we have often tested them as.

Rumbaugh, Patterson, the Gardners, and de Waal all threw open vast vistas of cognitive and emotive capabilities among our nearest relatives, the primates, over the course of the 1900s, but a thorough probing of the capacities of that other uncommonly gifted mammal, the dolphin, after foundational work by John Lilly in the 1950s, had to wait until the 1980s for its full technical fruition when a scientist named Diana Reiss developed the clever mechanisms which would finally allow the hidden mind of the dolphin to reveal its astounding extent.

To those who believe that scientists arrive at their careers through a straight and canonical path lined with test tubes, partial differential equations, and Southern blotting, traversed with a single minded forward momentum, Reiss’s path to research might come as a surprise.  She grew up interested in art and science equally, and animals especially.  The highlights of her young life included Saturday morning art classes in the park and romps through nature where she attempted to rescue all manner of animals in distress.  That drive, to both help and understand animals, led naturally to an early desire to be a veterinarian, but when the time came to choose a college Reiss opted to deepen her connection with the arts, attending Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art, and graduating in 1971 with a BA from Temple University in Elementary Education.  She then joined a theater MFA program and for five years juggled her studies with her work as a set designer for the Manning Street Theatre.

“I see many commonalities between the arts and science, particularly in doing a show and doing an experiment… In both cases you face the possibilities of failure and/or discovery and that’s what is so compelling and exciting!” – Diana Reiss  

Through all the time spent studying art, education, and theater, however, the call of science was not silent, and particularly the possibility of studying animal communication.  In 1976 she officially switched her field of study from theater to cognition, and within a decade she had compiled a list of research accomplishments that highlighted a sophisticated array of dolphin cognitive capacities.  

To those of us on the outside, the gap betwixt theater and cognitive research seems unbridgeable.  The two disciplines, on casual consideration, seem to require entirely different sets of skills, and since many students I’ve talked to have held off from moving to academic disciplines that excite them precisely because they feel they are too invested in where they are to change and too afraid that their acquired talents won’t transfer to inquire, I decided to ask Reiss about her transition, and her response is something I think all students should take to heart:

I see many commonalities between the arts and science, particularly in doing a show and doing an experiment and I think my theatre experience actually prepared me for doing experiments. In both cases you work with a team and envision a setting and the events that may take place in that setting. You gather all the materials, set things in motion and create a reality. Then, after the show you strike the set or experimental set-up and move on to the next show or experiment. In both cases you face the possibilities of failure and/or discovery and that’s what is so compelling and exciting!”

It can’t be said enough: Humanities. Skills. Are. Relevant. For. Science.

Reiss was taking her first steps in untested waters – how do you rigorously probe the cognitive capacities of a handless marine mammal?  This was new territory in terms of apparatus construction, testing procedure, and evaluative criteria, and Reiss resolved to start from the dolphin up, so to speak.  In the second year of her PhD, she received a grant to observe two semi-wild dolphins at a small facility at Little Torch Key, Florida.  This allowed her to probe how the human-dolphin dynamic, which any research would be nested in, worked on a day-to-day level.  What motivates a dolphin, and what frustrates one?  How well do they remember routines, and how do they react when you deviate from one?  She spent time simply being with the dolphins, gathering in the stuff of their daily world holistically, before allowing herself to develop theories and testing mechanisms.  

Her time at Little Torch Key having taught her what to expect from daily dolphin interactions, it was time to get herself up to date with the science and technology of bioacoustics which would prove central to her research project by allowing her to rigorously record and analyze the sonic patterns produced by dolphins in different situations.  She received a grant to study at Rene-Guy Busnel’s Lab in Physiological Acoustics and Animal Behavior in France, through which she had an opportunity to develop her skills with a dolphin she named Circe in 1979.

At the very outset of her career, however, there occurred that particularly vicious counter-attack from the scientific establishment against all notions of animals possessing quasi-linguistic abilities which for lack of a better term I’ll call the ‘Clever Hans Offensive’.  In 1979 at a meeting entitled ‘The Clever Hans Phenomenon: Communication with Horses, Whales, Apes, and People’, a group of researchers argued vociferously, but with little clear grasp of the methodologies involved, that all demonstrations of linguistic capacity from non-human animals thus far were the result of humans constructing experiments and interpreting data in ways that reproduced their unconsciously desired results.  The publication of the proceedings of that meeting in 1981 provided a foundational document around which all kneejerk resistance to animal language studies could accumulate, and continues to this day to make publication of animal linguistic and cognition studies in major journals difficult.

1979 ushered in two decades of discovery for Reiss… wherein she recorded a dizzying spectrum of unexpected dolphin cognitive abilities and competencies using unique and novel interactive experimental designs.

In spite of the obstacles to her work that the long shadow of Hans would place in her way over the coming years, 1979 ushered in two decades of discovery for Reiss wherein, overcoming  complications due to relocations and funding difficulties, she recorded a dizzying spectrum of unexpected dolphin cognitive abilities and competencies using unique and novel interactive experimental designs. By building an underwater interchangeable non-iconic symbol frame, she was able to demonstrate dolphins’ ability to associate abstract symbols with objects (1979), and by updating the frame to an underwater keyboard and pairing the pressing of the buttons with the playing of synthetic dolphin-like sounds, she established that not only did dolphins spontaneously mimic the new sounds and use them appropriately in reference to the given objects (1984), but that they could create novel combinations of the sounds to generate new hybrid whistles describing new hybrid objects (1987), AND that they remembered and spontaneously used the learned synthetic whistles even after a passage of several years.

Having plumbed the object-symbol-sound connections that dolphins were able to make, her next leap forward came when it was noticed in 1989 that dolphins seemed to be responding with unusual intensity to the walls in the pool when the light conditions made them mirror-like.  This was potentially a find of great significance, as recognition of a mirror image as one’s “self” (mirror self-recognition, or MSR) is a major cognitive milestone that separates one swath of the animal kingdom from the rest.  If it could be shown that a dolphin realized that the “dolphin in the mirror” was in fact herself, it would go far to validate the cognitive complexity of the species.  

The problem that faced Reiss and her colleague Lori Marino is that in most studies with non-human primates, what you do is put a dab of paint on the subject’s forehead unbeknownst to them and then wait to see if, when she sees the paint on the forehead of her reflected image, she reaches up to touch her own forehead.  That is a clear sign that the subject recognizes the mirror image as herself but relies heavily on the fact that primates have hands.  How do you design a comparable experiment for be-flippered dolphins?  You can put all the marks you want on a dolphin, but they’ll never be able to point to it in consternation or wonder and thereby signal that they are associating the mark on the mirror dolphin with themselves.  Reiss’s solution was to mark the dolphins multiple times on different parts of their body that they could not directly observe.  By noting differences in how the dolphins oriented themselves in the mirror when they were marked versus unmarked, she hoped to establish that the dolphins were indeed using the mirror to observe the mark on their bodies, and therefore recognized the mirror image as themselves.  

After establishing that the dolphins appeared to be engaging in self-directed behaviors towards their image in the mirror, rather than the social behaviors that animals lacking MSR tend to display, researchers began their series of trials and laborious hours of footage analysis to establish differences in mirror orientation for marked dolphins.  During a typical test a researcher would use a non-toxic waterproof marker to mark a dolphin on a particular location that could not be viewed without the aid of a mirror.  The dolphin would then typically jet towards the mirror to center the mark within the viewing window and linger on it.  The centering and lingering could be measured through cameras and stopwatches and at the end of the first run the data was unambiguously clear: the dolphins realized the mirror dolphin was them, and thereby must possess the advanced cognitive capacity of “selfhood.”  

Because of the laboriousness of the methods involved, the first submission of their paper included only one dolphin and was rejected because of the sample size.  Girding themselves for more hours upon hours of detailed camera analysis, they repeated their results with a second dolphin, and came to the same conclusions.  The resulting paper was still rejected by a hostile reviewer at both Nature and Science, who could not accept the conclusions that had been clearly demonstrated, and so this landmark paper ended up in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and proceeded to garner global attention as media outlets across the world picked up on the import of self-aware dolphins to our conception of primates as the world’s uniquely conscious species.  

From a respected researcher well-known amongst a niche of biologists and linguists, Reiss was suddenly a talking point on the nightly news and even featured in a joke on The Daily Show, and with that heightening of profile came a corresponding ability to lend her voice to issues affecting dolphins globally, and in particular to the brutal dolphin slaughters carried out in Taiji, Japan.  There, fishermen gather in boats and circle around large collections of dolphins, frightening them into dashing towards a pre-arranged location where the dolphins jam themselves into narrow confines, and are set upon by waiting butchers who hack about as they attempt to kill the panicked and desperate animals.  Her efforts to change the Taiji practices began in 2005 and culminated in a film, The Cove, in 2009 (it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year), which graphically detailed the disturbing particulars of this routine slaughter of intelligent and empathetic living beings.  

The last decade, then, has seen Reiss do what she has always done – employing the latest technologies to gain a more complete understanding of dolphin cognition through experiments that give their subjects interactive choice (the simple but effective dolphin keyboard of the 1980s has since been replaced by a modern touchscreen and the fixed camcorders of the 1980s with 360 video to record wild dolphin communication), and employing her name to publicize the emotional and cognitive depths of the dolphin mind (especially in her wonderful 2011 memoir The Dolphin in the Mirror) and to continue pressuring world governments to end barbaric dolphin hunting practices (Japan still maintains that the Taiji hunts are humane, though a current legal case is challenging that analysis).  

In 1975 what we knew of dolphins included a small pile of facts compiled by a dedicated if eccentric researcher in the 1950s and 60s and a large stack of unscientific hunches garnered from reruns of Flipper.  Now, some short decades later, thanks to the innovative work of a researcher who let no bureaucratic mess or institutional reshuffling stand in the way of the ultimate thrust of her work, we possess an exquisite insight into the mental adaptability and depth of a species whose evolutionary path could not be more different than that which led to primates such as ourselves, and in the process we have learned the incredibly valuable lesson that human consciousness is one example of many about how minds can form, and that if we are going to continue to make progress in evaluating the cognition of other species, we must take that fact into consideration.  Diana Reiss has made us aware of the boundaries of our consciousness, and in so doing has extended the boundaries of our awareness, making ourselves a bit more humbly honest thereby, and the world a bit more frankly amazing.

FURTHER READING: Reiss’s 2011 book The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives has more fascinating accounts of the dolphin mind than I had time to cover here (the chapters on dolphin empathy and bubble play were particularly revelatory) and is the sort of book that once picked up has to be read until the last page is turned.  Reiss also recommends D.R. Griffin’s Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (2001) as a good text for students who would like to start learning more about the field of animal cognition.

Lead Photo Courtesy of Diana Reiss

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