Dolphins Reported Talking Whale in Their Sleep

By Bill Blakemore
ABC News

Freud’s ‘Royal Road to the Unconscious’ May Have Surfaced at a Pool in France

Nature’s Edge Notebook #15

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

News has come from France that some captive-born dolphins there have been recorded “talking in their sleep” — and talking in Whale, no less, not Dolphinese. The scientists involved say this would be the first time that dolphins have been recorded mimicking sounds a significant period of time after hearing them.

But there’s also the intriguing possibility that these sounds — virtually identical to sounds made by the humpback whale — may, if the dolphins are really asleep and not just resting, be direct expression of something the dolphins are dreaming.

Another possibility, say the scientists, is that dolphins are going over their dolphinarium show routine  in their heads in something like the way an eager student might fall asleep going over tough homework problems.

And as if to entice the scientists’ curiosity, just as these reports were emerging from France, reports and pictures surfaced from the waters around Hawaii, on the other side of the globe, that show the same kind of whale — humpbacks — playing a unique, even sensual, lift-and-slide game with the same kind of dolphin — the bottlenose.

Sleep-talking in humans is known to correspond to the contents of dreams. And dreams, according to psychologist Sigmund Freud, are “the royal road to the unconscious.”

Are the recordings of these captive dolphins in France, who during their rest/sleep cycles after midnight are imitating near-perfect humpback whale calls, allowing scientists to eavesdrop on moments of dolphin dream?

And if so, are they thus giving us a glimpse into the unconscious mental workings of the glistening bottlenose dolphin? These are only two of the the new questions scientists feel they can now ask about these unexpected recordings.

Our previous Nature’s Edge Notebook (#14) explored how computers now make it possible for scientists to discern remarkably complex and detailed vocal communications in prairie dogs and dolphins — sounds that are pitched and varied in ways the human ear cannot detect.

Our natural human tendency to hope that such findings will lead to proof that the mental life and consciousness of prairie dogs, or at least of the large-brained dolphins, is just like ours was given a reality check in that previous report by the MIT’s linguistic philosopher, Noam Chomsky.

In a wide ranging interview with ABC News, Chomsky described human linguistic thought as having a boundless creativity of dynamic imagination that engages in a super-complex way with the world — a quality that, as he explained, he still sees no evidence of in the newly discovered subtleties and variations in prairie dog calls and dolphin whistles and chirps.

But Chomsky made another observation (for which there was no place in that report) about the ancient vexing question: What is the nature of consciousness itself? It’s a problem that is increasingly discussed of late among scientists and philosophers on campuses and in professional journals.

“The current focus on consciousness may be highly misleading,” Chomsky told ABC News. “We haven’t a clue what the consciousness of dolphins is like,” he said, and suggested that the experts don’t do much better in describing what human consciousness is like:

“Can you answer the question, ‘What is it like to be human?’ ” he asked, all but rhetorically. The next really interesting discoveries about mind, Chomsky suggested, may be found “below” whatever consciousness is. “Human consciousness is probably just the icing on the cake — just the surface of what’s going on,” he said.

Chomsky referred to the recent flood of neurological and psychological research that is showing how much of our thought and our motivation for behavior and action goes on at the unconscious level — apparently out of our control. Enter the talkative bottlenose dolphins of France.

‘Dolphins Multilingual! Talk Whale in Their Sleep in France!’

A few days after we published that story about prairie dog research, the news reports about sleep-talking dolphins suddenly emerged from France, producing such engaging headlines in the popular press as this from London’s Daily Mail:

“Dolphins are multilingual! Scientists record mammals talking ‘Whale’ … in their sleep.” The headlines in peer-reviewed scientific journals were a little more sober and circumspect: “Do dolphins rehearse show-stimuli when at rest? Delayed matching of auditory memory.”

Thats the title of a study by five scientists in France (Kremers et al) in the January 29, 2012 issue of Frontiers in Comparative Psychology. (See link below.) The one-paragraph “abstract” summary (such as is found at the top of most peer-reviewed scientific articles) ends with this intriguing sentence:

“These results open the way for broader views of how animals might rehearse life events while resting or maybe dreaming.” The article itself begins thus:

“Dolphins have the ability to copy sounds from their environment other than those produced by conspecifics, like orangutans or elephants, under captive conditions when mimicries are associated with salient events, such as training or shows…”

Like many scientific discoveries, this one happened by accident. And, as with the discoveries reported in our previous “Nature’s Edge Notebook” about the complexity of prairie dog languages, it too was made possible by computers. In brief, here’s what apparently happened in France:

It involves five dolphins, named Peos, Mininos, Cecil, Teha, and Amtan — all born and raised in captivity — who perform regularly at the Planete Sauvage (Wild Planet) Dolphinarium not far from the Atlantic Ocean in western France.

Because so little is known about what dolphins sound like at night during their “rest/sleep periods,” researchers, curious to see what they might find, had hung some underwater microphones in the dolphin’s tank for a period of nine days and eight nights … and hit the record button.

They picked up some unusual sounds, though they couldn’t tell which dolphin or dolphins were making them.

After a complicated elimination process (that was greatly aided by computers) trying to figure out whether these sounds might be mimicked from sounds that the dolphins hear during the day, the scientists zeroed in on a 21-minute show tape of various natural sounds that plays to the Dolphinarium’s human audience during the dolphins’ performance.

The tape includes several minutes of humpback whale sounds. With the help of computers, the scientists matched those sounds to the new sounds made by the resting or sleeping — and possibly dreaming — dolphin or dolphins.

The researchers, plus a number of other human listeners enlisted in blind-study comparisons, could not distinguish the whale sounds in the show tape from the sleepy dolphin sounds.

This is, apparently, the first known recorded instance of dolphins mimicking sounds a significant period of time after hearing them.

It raises the enticing possibility that they may have been “rehearsing in their sleep,” just as humans sometimes do, a difficult or intense activity encountered during the day — possibly in a dream state of some kind, and at the very least, while resting quietly. The researchers still have a lot of scientific re-checking and re-confirmation to do.

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