Friday’s broadcast of Radio Lab is of note.
This episode of Radio Lab is important because it indirectly sheds light on the animal mind.
A linguist travelled to a South American village that housed a school for deaf children because the children had invented a new language in their unique manner of signing. The linguist wanted to document the evolution of a language in real time through successive generations of students entering the school and picking it up as it’s not often that one can talk to both the inventors of a language as well as to its latest iterators. Not surprisingly she found that as the language matured over the years, new acquisitors added new words and were able to communicate far more information with increasingly subtle gestures. The earliest acquirers used large body movements to express themselves whereas the later acquirers could express even more with a mere inflection of their wrist. What was surprising however was that when the early acquirers were asked to describe a story they had been shown in a video, they retold it as a sequence of events, this happened and then that happened. Whereas the later acquirers would retell the same story but in terms of the mental states of the characters in the story. This character was feeling this when that happened and so this internal state led to that external event. Being intrigued with this finding, the linguist next tested the acquirers with a theory of mind experiment. They were presented with a story of two brothers playing with the older brother’s toy train in the older brother’s bedroom. The older brother before leaving to get something to eat from the kitchen, placed the toy under his bed and admonished his younger brother to leave it there. Of course as soon as he left the room his younger brother took the train out and secreted it in a toy chest. Eventually the older brother returned to his room to resume playing and so the students were asked where the older brother was likely to look for the toy train.
The children who had acquired the most developed version of the language answered that the older brother would look under the bed because in his mind, that was where he believed the train was when he left the room. However the older students who had acquired the crudest version of the language in the first wave of acquisition and were now thirty years old, answered that the older brother would look in the toy chest. They had no idea of relative points of view given the passage of time.
As it turned out, in the original version of the sign language there was only one term for a state of knowing and it existed in the present moment. Whereas in the more refined version of the language, there were now twelve terms for various states of knowing and these embellished a far more refined comprehension of how points of view change relative to the passage of time.
Words matter. If human beings with a highly evolved intellect do not automatically manifest a particularly robust theory of mind by virtue of lacking a terminology that embodies a theory of mind (relative points of view predicated on Time—these are both the same thing) how could animals be expected to manifest a theory of mind when they live wholly in the present tense and as far as we know have no terms for objects (not to mention points of view) evolving over time? An animal takes each moment as it is. Because words matter this study should immediately call into question the experiments on animal cognition which researchers have interpreted as indicating a theory of mind, for example, the experiment in the recent issue of National Geographic purporting to demonstrate that dogs have an innate sense of fairness. Whereas I propose that the phenomenon of physical memory (a whole body cellular record of emotional experience that evokes and carries forward the physical and universal feeling of motion) will prove a far more comprehensive and parsimonious interpretation of such experiments. The past lives on in the moment by way of physical memory. This networking of minds is the design of nature.