Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Theory of Mind

It is my favorite New Yorker magazine cartoon. Peter Steiner's drawing portrays two canines. The talking one is a black hound sitting in front of a computer with one paw resting on the keyboard. The listener is a black-spotted white pooch seated on the floor, staring up.

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Now I don't think that dogs can really think -- not like that anyway. But sometimes they do things that make you stop and rethink what actually might be going on in their little -- brain to body weight 1/125 versus 1/40 in humans -- minds.

"Theory-of-Mind" is the belief that other humans and animals think in the exact same, conscious, self-aware way that we ourselves do

"There's no convincing evidence...that suggests dogs can replicate human thought processes: use language, think in narrative and sequential terms, understand human minds, or share humans' range of emotions.

"Yet that remains a powerful, pervasive view of dogs...It's almost impossible not to lapse into theory-of-mind reasoning when it comes to our dogs. After all, most of us have no other way in which to grasp another creature's behavior. How can one even begin to imagine what's going on inside a dog's head?" (Jon Katz in

"'I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,' Dr. Wynne [associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida] said. 'It's a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.'" (Good Dog, Smart Dog By SARAH KERSHAW)

Then there's what happened the other day between Mars and Emma.

For those unfamiliar -- Mars is my wife, and Emma is the Pit Bull /Dalmatian cross that lives two houses down the street.

Several times each day J takes Emma for a walk. The route never varies. It is a small loop that passes in front of our residence, crosses the street, goes back down the other side, and then home.

Emma has two stops along that trip that she earnestly attempts to make each time. One is at our domicile to visit with Mars, and the other is across the street to visit with B, the female resident of that abode.

As she passes each property Emma strains her neck to search for Mars or B. If no one is outside at our place she looks into our family room. When she spots Mars she lowers her center of gravity and hauls J up the driveway until she makes contact. If I am available she will give me a perfunctory sniff, but clearly my only significance to Emma is an indicator that Mars is probably around.

Periodically Mars gives Emma a squeaky dog toy. Emma immediately drags J back home where she sequesters her present and, over time, meticulously rips it apart. Mars gifted Emma several days ago but because of conflicting schedules had not seen her since.

A night ago I was in the yard barbecuing when I looked up and saw Emma towing J up the driveway towards me. In her mouth Emma had the remnants of her latest present. I called for Mars.

"She just grabbed it and brought with her." J said.

Emma swiveled her body up to Mars and proudly held up the torn-apart bunny rabbit for her to see. As soon as Mars acknowledged the dilapidated plaything Emma turned and dragged J back down the car path and home.

I suppose that she could have sent an ECard "thank you" instead -- but it probably wouldn't have been as impressive.

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