Back in 1974 Thomas Nagel published the now-famous paper What is it like to be a bat? It was an examination of the mind-body problem. Part of Nagel’s argument includes the notion that we can never really know what it’s like to be a bat. As W.G. Sebald said, “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
But in What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience (2017) neuroscientist Gregory Berns disagrees. In his opinion Nagel got it wrong. The Sebald Gap closes from both ends. Firstly because animal minds aren’t really that different from ours. Secondly because we can extrapolate our experiences to those of dogs, dolphins, or bats.
I think he has a point, but I also think he’s misreading Nagel a little.
Maybe not misreading so much as focusing on a lesser point — the inscrutability of bats or other animals. But (despite the name of the paper) bats, and what it’s like to be one, actually occupy only a portion of Nagel’s paper — about two of the eight-plus pages.
Granted the seven paragraphs that do discuss them mention them a lot: 25 times. And Nagel does therein write:
It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.
Yet this is exactly what Gregory Berns argues we can do. We can extrapolate from our own experience, plus neuroscience shows us that animal brains function very much like human brains, so we can believe that their experience has something in common with ours.
Certainly anyone who is close to dogs believes that. (Dogs are a unique case. They certainly aren’t the smartest animal, but they are the most domesticated and communicative.)
While I think Berns has a point, I end up siding with Nagel and Sebald. In one of the paper’s footnotes (#8) Nagel argues:
The imagination is remarkably flexible. My point, however, is not that we cannot know what it is like to be a bat. I am not raising that epistemological problem. My point is rather that even to form a conception of what it is like to be a bat […] one must take up the bat’s point of view. If one can take it up roughly, or partially, then one’s conception will also be rough or partial.
I think ultimately even Berns would have to admit that what he has in mind is “rough or partial.”
So despite his bringing it up a number of times, Berns doesn’t really mean what Nagel means. More importantly, that we can’t know what it’s like to be a bat isn’t Nagel’s main point.
At the end of the paper Nagel sums up his main point, writing, “it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective. Otherwise we cannot even pose the mind-body problem without sidestepping it.”
So it isn’t so much that we can never understand what it’s like to be a bat but that, in the first place, there is something it is like to be a bat and, further, that this universal experience of being a bat is shared among bats.
By extension, there something it is like to be a human, and it is (as far as we can tell from millennium of description) shared universally, albeit with variation, among humans. Nagel’s view boils down to that we need to include and understand subjectivity — a unique property of more advanced brains.
I think he’s exactly right about that. Subjective experience — what most think of as consciousness — is (so far) a unique property of advanced brains, and human consciousness is (so far) a unique property of human brains. We don’t yet understand how it emerges from brain function, yet it is a central fact and facet of our existence.
Nagel is saying we need to take it seriously (and I’m sure Berns agrees with him on that point 100%).
His work respective to this book involves fMRI imaging of animal brains. He founded and leads the Dog Project where they train dogs to crouch down and be still enough in an MRI machine that brain imaging was possible while they performed experiments.
Several chapters of the book discuss the imaging of the brains of other animals. These other animal brains, which all came from deceased animals, include coyotes, sea lions, dolphins, and two Tasmanian Tigers (which, as you may know, are believed extinct).
Berns is a strong animal advocate, and one great aspect of his work is that the dogs are given the freedom to choose whether to participate or not. They never use anesthetics (which would make the experiments impossible anyway), and they never bind the dogs in any way. They do spend a great deal of time training the dogs, first with a tube, then with a tube and noises, and so on until the dog is able to withstand the noise of the actual machine.
They even make a point of having a stair so the dog actively walks up into the MRI machine under its own power and choice. And, after spending much time and effort in the training, during which many dogs washed out, some dogs couldn’t take the real thing and refused to participate. Their choices were respected, which I think is so cool.
Animal advocacy is an especially strong theme in the latter chapters when Berns discusses scanning the brains of “Tasmanian Tigers” (Thylacines) he was able to obtain.
The case of the Thylacine is particularly poignant because it’s a unique and interesting animal, and it seems clear human action removed it from the world. Supposed sightings abound, and many hope to find a living Thylacine, but most experts think that hope is founded in shame.
Berns goes so far as to paint a fictional picture of the last days of the last Thylacine, which was in a zoo where, per Berns, it was basically neglected to death. It’s an almost startling bit of storytelling in an otherwise science-based book, but I didn’t mind it, and I can see why Berns went there. It is kind of a heart-breaker.
Speaking of which, Berns also tells a tale about his Medical School experience with bodies. He wasn’t bothered, and barely remembers, the human cadaver his lab group spent a semester dissecting, but forever vividly burned into his heart is the single day in the anesthetics lab where he killed a dog.
Back then medical schools used animals as teaching aids (this practice has gone the way of the buggy whip), and this lab involved pound dogs that were pre-anesthetized, bound down, and their chests opened to expose their hearts. The students administered various drugs and were able to view the results on the heart. The final stage was an injection of potassium chloride into the heart to stop it.
The thing was, potassium can take up to ten minutes to work, so the teacher gave the students the option of using a scalpel to cut the pulmonary artery and letting the dog almost instantly bleed out. Berns took that option — a memory he can never forget.
I think any of us who have taken a beloved dog to the vet on that final visit can relate. Fortunately we live in a world that is, albeit slowly and with backsliding, growing more mature regarding its views on the ethical and humane treatment of animals.
Berns begins by listing several key principles of brains:
The first is: Animals have brains because they need to do things. He explains:
What an animal needs to do, though, depends both on its physical form and on the environment in which it is situated. Although brains do process information, information processing is necessary only to the extent that it facilitates action. Moreover, animals have control over the information they process, which is called active perception. Buried in this tight relationship between brain and body is the animal’s mind.
The next principle is: Animals have brains to tailor their actions to their environment.
In other words, animals do not exist in isolation. They are embedded in the world around them, and part of the function of a brain is to link the external world to the animal’s decision-making systems, and ultimately, its body.
The third principle is: Animals have brains so they can learn.
Berns points out that a few neurons suffice for stimulus-response association, a form of learning, but more sophisticated brains allow an animal to learn much more about complex outcomes in their environment. He writes:
The answer is that brains have evolved to do more than take in information and act on it. A sophisticated brain constantly runs simulations of possible actions and outcomes, like you do when you are playing chess. As the behavioral repertoire of vertebrates increased, the complexity of their brains had to increase accordingly.
Which brings us to the fourth and final principle: Brains simulate possible actions and future outcomes so as to make the best possible decision for the situation at hand.
From there he segues into a discussion about brain size compared to body size and the encephalization quotient (EQ) that provides a better measure than brain size alone.
One chapter, Buridan’s Ass, gets into some of the more challenging experiments Berns designed for dogs. For one thing, he wanted a way to attempt the marshmallow test or something like it. The experiments he came up with are fascinating.
He also wanted to test whether dogs have preferences between praise from their human or food. (The chapter name comes from these tests.) Not surprisingly, it turns out dogs vary in their preferences. Some are all about the treats, others prefer their owners.
The test involves a simple T-shaped maze with the human sitting at one end and a bowl with food at the other. The dog is let into the room and can see both; which will it go to first?
(It occurs to me that, first with cable and now with streaming, we all live in the world of Buridan’s Ass. How often have we stared, brain-locked, at the list of things we could watch and found it almost impossible to decide?)
In the chapter Talk to the Animals, Berns cites Rico and Chaser, two border collies famous for their large vocabulary, and sets off to determine whether dogs do understand labels — do they have a semantic system and, if so, how does it function? He writes:
We humans take it for granted that a name refers to the whole object. But there is no reason to expect other animals to think like us when it comes to language. Dogs could be feature-bound where we humans take a gestalt view. The evidence was scant, but a few studies did support my idea that dogs mapped words to objects in a fundamentally different way from humans.
The experiments were challenging, but successful enough for Berns to conclude that, firstly dogs react to novel words, which makes sense — reacting to novelty is kind of what brains are specialized to do — and it indicates that dogs differentiate the sounds well enough. More interestingly:
In addition to novelty, the dogs seemed to process the words in terms of actions associated with the objects. In our experiment, both objects could be nudged or picked up with the mouth. So even though we taught the dogs two words, it is possible that we didn’t see any difference in semantic representation because the associated action was always the same. An action-based semantic system would make sense for an animal. For an animal lacking language capability, there would be no need to symbolically represent the names of things. But knowing whether a thing should be picked up, chewed, or eaten would be very important.
Later in the chapter, in irony of his own assertion about closing the Sebald Gap, Berns writes:
I have written a lot about the similarities between the brains of humans and other animals, but when it comes to language, we must acknowledge fundamental differences.
I can only agree. 😀
Which brings me back to Nagel and Sebald. As I noted, Berns does admit to the gap and does so throughout the book. But he also feels we can bridge it, if perhaps as Nagel put it, in a “rough and partial” way.
I think there is truth to that, but I also think we never can really know what it’s like to be another human being. We can try to “walk a mile in their shoes” but ultimately the only viewpoint we truly know is our own.
Millennia of literature and art tells us that the viewpoints of other humans are similar, even very similar, but, as someone I once knew put it very eloquently, “No matter how close you are to someone, no matter how tightly you hold them, in that last moment before you fall asleep, you are alone.”
We are all forever alone in our own heads. The great thing about literature, art, and music, is that it can bring in some company to visit.
Stay something it is like, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.