Further Reflections on Animal Intelligence

Gabriellame1_bvcI’ve been pondering animal intelligence for a while, as you may have noticed. The raft of new studies that demonstrate how much smarter animals are than humans have thought, actually just back up what any observant person can see for herself.

Humans get all up in their heads. And they have this thing about having Superior Brains.

But that’s not the debate I’m thinking about this week. I finally managed to read all of Doranna Durgin’s Changespell Saga, after having read and loved the first volume, Dun Lady’s Jess, but missed the two sequels to the difficulty at the time of  [a] knowing when a new book was coming out, and [b] actually finding it in a bookstore.

In this brave new world of backlist ebooks, I managed to get hold of the omnibus edition, and a grand reread it was, too. I particularly noticed the ways in which the books look at the differences between human and horse intelligence. There’s a real and for me successful effort to look at each objectively and measure them according to their own individual parameters.

Hence a horse compared to its human form would miss higher brain functions but be much more tuned in to its physical senses, and have an amazing and eidetic memory. It would also interpret human behaviors in the context of horse culture and cognition. Meanwhile the human form would wake up to a wider range of colors, much reduced other senses, and the lack of valuable signaling capacity in ears and tail.

It’s a really interesting look at both species through a protagonist who begins as one and is involuntarily transformed into the other. There’s also a line of plot about forced transformations, and the fact that an animal would not necessarily want the supposed advantages of the big human brain.

If you haven’t read these books and these themes interest you, do try them. Durgin has a thorough knowledge of and love for horses, and it shines through. It’s also grand fantasy adventure with cool characters and an interesting comparison between Earth and a world in which magic takes the place of technology.

The horses here match closely with scientific thinking and empirical observation. They’re remarkably realistic in that context. What got me sparking off on my own trains of thought were some of the other speculations I’ve seen and heard about animal intelligence. They’re much less strictly empirical, and some range off into the realm of, if not the impossible, at least the unprovable by any means we have access to at the moment.

But hey, I’m an sff writer. My brain is twisty. It takes nice, solid, verifiable concepts and packs them with dilithium crystals and launches them into space.

So. Animals. Horses specifically, since this is the Horseblog.

Let’s think about animal communicators and how they work. This is not an invitation to debunk them. Just assume that there’s something in what they say. (Some of you already do, I’m sure. Others, pretend you’re reading a fantasy novel. If you can accept that magic works in a fictional world, you can allow the concept here.)

Animal communicators are somehow making a connection with animals’ thought processes. It’s expressed to the client as words, but those I’ve conversed with have said that what comes through is more a pattern of emotions and images, which the communicator translates into terms the client can understand.

And that makes sense to me. Some of the studies demonstrate that horses can learn dozens and even hundreds of human words, so there’s a capacity for associating a sound with a concept, but horses can’t actually speak–they don’t have the anatomy for it. It seems logical that their own thought processes will be nonverbal.

What I wonder is whether there are levels of those processes that humans can’t (yet) access. We know they’re extremely sensitive to body language and movement, in addition to their more than humanly acute hearing and smell. Even sight, which is not as sophisticated as humans’ in terms of color perception and visual distinction, encompasses a much larger arc than humans’, though stereo vision isn’t happening and images may be processed independently by each side of the brain. (Hence, we show a horse something on both sides, to make sure the side that didn’t see it doesn’t signal him to freak out when something “new” materializes.)

If you can literally see behind you (even with a blind spot close up in the region of your tail, aka the kick zone), that affects how you perceive the world. There’s more data coming in from all sides, which added to the wider range of smells and sounds (and the ability to use ears as radar dishes, swiveling to refine the focus, as well as whiskers, which are sensory organs, plus the organ inside the upper lip which a horse will expose in the flehmen response), contributes to an extremely refined spatial sense. Horse cognition, I would think, puts a lot of emphasis on the sense of where the horse is in space, both at rest and in motion. Sometimes I wonder if a horse moves through air the way a dolphin moves through water, relating to the ground as a sort of anchor, but perceiving movement as a series of shapes in space.

Add in the herd thing and you get a real need for this kind of perception. A horse is not, by nature, a solitary creature. She’s designed to live in a group with a fluid but well-defined social order. She has to be aware constantly of where everyone is, what they’re doing, and how it affects her location and movement. Further, as a prey animal, she has to extend that awareness to the world beyond the herd, where predators are waiting to pick her off if she doesn’t pay attention.

So I wonder sometimes (OK, a lot of times) if there’s an additional level of perception going on here. Kind of a herd mind, a sense of self as an individual but also within the context of the group. Horses raised in stalls or in isolation often show signs of sociopathy: inability to function socially with other horses, and they may develop nervous behaviors such as stall-weaving, pacing, cribbing, wind-sucking, or even self-mutilation (which can happen especially to stallions, who in addition to being kept isolated, also are prevented from performing their natural functions not just of breeding mares at will, but guarding the herd).

Suppose there’s more to it. That horses have a sort of group mind, a herd intelligence above and beyond any individual member. Think about what that does in terms of bolstering their phenomenal individual capacity to remember, and their overall social structure. They might process data on a much more sophisticated level than we’re able to measure.

Who knows how sophisticated that might be? A human-fist-sized brain doesn’t seem like much in a half-ton body, but put a group of them together and you could seriously up the processing capacity. It’s how computers work, after all.

So why don’t they take over the world? It’s not just the lack of thumbs or the corresponding bent toward technology. Maybe they don’t want to. They are what they are. The kind of ambition that makes humans trash the planet would be, for a horse, a form of dangerous insanity.

There’s no way to be sure, of course. We don’t have the technology to measure this, if it exists. It might. We won’t know till it happens.

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About Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is a writer, a freelance editor and writing mentor, and a lifelong horse person. She lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses. Her new book, Forgotten Suns, is out now from Book View Cafe. Yes, there are horses in it.
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19 Responses to Further Reflections on Animal Intelligence

  1. You wouldn’t have to argue very hard with me that a *human* communicator is pretty far-fetched. I have a deep sense that I am communicating, but no one every really knows what is going on in my skull. Stuff happens … I make artifacts … other humans take those artifacts and make their own meanings. I *think* I have a sense of your meaning, but all I really have is a pattern of lighted pixels in my led display monitor. Is the written word any less arbitrary an arrangement of pigment on a fibrous substrate than a painting, or some other visual art – or a landscape? And speech! This is a pattern of pressure-density waves created by flapping meat … completely ephemeral, even when I can record and play it back. How is is even conceivable that there is any meaning in that subtle pattern? I have a little doggie that makes “conversation” but I can’t get the sense of her meaning. It is a damn miracle we can understand each other at all, and I can’t help thinking that with just a bit more experience or insight, we’d see that everything it talking all around us. My day job is theoretical physics, and most of what I do is try to catch the rhythm of the natural poetry under my nose. So … not much of a stretch at all. If you can build a *me* communicator, I think a horse communicator would be a piece of cake.

  2. Foxessa says:

    Animals not only possess intelligence they possess cultures. The studies and reporting of the latter seems to be a growth field in several disciplines including biology.

    And the more animals interact with humans the more it seems the latter manifests. We certainly do change animal behaviors.

    Fascinating work.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      The work on prairie dogs blows my mind. Language and culture both. Says something about the importance of brain size, too. If something with a brain the size of a chickpea can develop language…

      • Zena says:

        I remember listening to a couple of crows discussing outside my window one June morning. It was definitely a back-and-forth communication, and not just random vocalisations. Made me wish I was conversant in crow.

  3. sherwood says:

    I am completely convinced about communication going on at levels we can barely perceive. If at all.

    • …but the trick is to know what is intended? We go a little crazy attibuting meaning to what is sometimes just noise? Like Ahab taking it personally?

      • Judith Tarr says:

        How do you know it wasn’t personal?

      • Zena says:

        It’s only noise when you don’t understand what’s being said.

        • Science is all about noiticing signal in the noise! So I am right there with you. But sometimes, the signal is just an extension of what I wanted to measure. LIGO spent 10 years measuring trucks rumbling along the streets of Baton Rouge and Hanford before they saw the signal in the noise. But they waited until they understood the whisper of those colliding black holes to claim meaning.

          Sometimes there is intent there and sometimes it is the result of aRorschach test.

          • Zena says:

            Granted. Although horses are sentient beings, and trucks? Not so much. On the other hand…

            • …Gaia burping vs gravitationa waves? Science is a story we make as humans to explain patterns to ourselves, even if there is no meaning there at all.

              • Zena says:

                But then that begs the question: is meaning something that exists in and of itself, or does it only exist as an extension of sentient interpretation?

                • …I have thread-jacked this conversation too much already, so with apologies to Judith (thanks for the conversation!) I will just say: even when you talk to me, I have to create a meaning for myself, and it is a miracle that it ever has anything to do with what you intended. Although in this one case, I *think* I know what you mean. Time to go and eat some oats, and maybe trot in the pasture.

                • Zena says:

                  Awww – stalled. Just when things were getting interesting!

                  Enjoy your oats…

  4. Cat Kimbriel says:

    I do think that there is so much more to animal intelligence than we understand. I was party to a communicator outreach with animals in a new communal house, and it was fascinating. What animals care about, and how much they care, can be so different from a human’s wants or perceptions.

    I also feel that my subconscious learns to understand an animal much better than the conscious mind can. If I pay attention, I understand the animals living around me better.

    • Judith Tarr says:

      Yes.

      Animals have their own agenda. We tend to reward those who come closer to ours, or who make an evident effort–dogs, for example–and regard animals with less desire to please us as less intelligent. In fact it might just be that they’re not interested in what we want, or what we want doesn’t intersect with anything they care about.

      There’s an assumption there: that everything is about us, and everything should accommodate to us. We’re so very upset when it doesn’t.