Jellyfish, Motorcycles, and Diving Dogs.
The Nature World News website recently touted the fact that a new laboratory study suggests that a species of jellyfish has been seen “deliberately” catching fish, this despite the fact that jellyfish don’t have brains or a central nervous system.
According to lead researcher, Robert Courtney, “They’re using their tentacles and nematocyst clusters like experienced fishers use their lines and lures.”
He goes on, “The nematocyst clusters look like a series of bright pearls, which the jellyfish twitches to attract the attention of its prey, like a series of fishing lures. It’s a very deliberate and selective form of prey capture.”
Interesting, huh? So according to Dr. Courtney, each jellyfish twitches their pearl-like tentacles in a very deliberate manner in order to attract the attention of its prey.
Yet, attention is a mental state. It’s sometimes deliberate and sometimes not. Even so, how could a jellyfish possibly know that its prey has mental states? It seems to me that in order for a jelly to produce these behaviors for the reasons Dr. Courtney has given it would have to have a fairly well-developed theory of mind, meaning it would have to have a mind of its own and would also have to be capable of knowing that other organisms have minds similar to its own in some ways, yet dissimilar in others.
Attraction vs. Attention
But here’s a significant fact: we’re also told that the study was done in a laboratory instead of the jellyfish’s natural habitat. That’s because this is a very tiny organism that’s almost invisible in the open sea. So, in order to capture this species for laboratory study, the researchers have to trap the jellyfish by submerging high-powered lights in its natural aquatic habitat.
Why do they do that? Because jellyfish are attracted to light.
So here we have two variations on the word “attraction.”
1) The jellyfish is attracted to light, and
2) the jellyfish is reportedly attempting to attract the attention of its prey.
But how could a jellyfish possibly know anything about its’ prey's attentional states? And why does Dr. Courtney think he’s seeing deliberate behavior in an organism that can’t possibly think about what it’s doing? Why aren’t the jellies behaviors described through—I don’t know—a basic function of physics found in all things, living or non-living, all things on earth, organic and inorganic, a simple process found both in organisms that can think, meaning human beings (and maybe dolphins) and those that can’t.
This very simple process is called attraction.
The truth is simple: the jellyfish is simply attracted to its prey. If it didn't feel that attraction it wouldn’t be able to feed itself except by sheer random chance. And while it may seem that the jellies are moving deliberately, is this a matter of mental deliberation—which would require a fairly complicated thought process—or a simple feeling of attraction?
After all, jellyfish don’t have hearts, lungs, or a brain. Its skin is so thin that it can absorb oxygen right through it, so the jelly doesn’t need lungs. It doesn’t have blood so there's no need for a heart. And they’re able to respond to changes in their environment using signals from a tiny net of nerves just below the outer layer of skin that is sensitive to touch, so they don’t need a brain. And, to top it all, they’re mostly made of water. So where does this idea that they behave in a deliberate manner come from?
Could it be that the jellyfish is simply moving toward its prey due to an unconscious form of physical attraction?
Dogs on Motorcycles, Dolphins Riding Whales
Meanwhile, in another part of the world, we have a species called the dog. And dogs are known for their infatuation with car rides. Of course, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about that. I mean it’s interesting that dogs love going for car rides, and that most cats hate it. But until recently I’d never heard of a dog who loved motorcycle rides. But in a recent television interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan described how one of his dogs absolutely loves to do just that.
As soon as his dog hears him kick-starting the engine, she comes bursting out of the house, runs straight to the motorcycle, and jumps up between the handlebars onto the gas tank. Then, cradled safely (or perhaps precariously) between her owner’s arms, the duo takes off down the road.
This is all pretty amazing (and some would say dumb on Morgan’s part), but here’s what I think is really amazing: once this dynamic duo reach the freeway, and begin traveling 70 miles an hour, the dog falls asleep and doesn’t wake up until they reach their destination!
Can you imagine? The dog isn’t safe inside a car, with the window rolled down so she can stick her head out. She’s sleeping on top of the gas tank. At 70 mph! Fast asleep!!
I think dogs like to ride motorcycles for the same reason they like to go for car rides, chase tennis balls and fly through the air after Frisbees. They like the feelings of momentum and the pleasure of velocity. And on a motorcycle those feelings are intensified. Dogs also like the feeling of togetherness which are also intensified on a motorcycle.
Dogs and Dolphins and Dolphins and Dogs
Another species that seems to thoroughly enjoy feelings of physical momentum, as well as synchronous movement with others, is the bottle-nose dolphin. We’ve all seen videos or still images of dolphins arcing together in unison, either in the open water or while doing tricks at a water park.
In fact, there have been several incidents where dolphins have been seen, off the coast of Hawaii, riding on the backs of humpback whales similar to the way Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s dog rides on his motorcycle’s gas tank!
Ken Ramirez, a dolphin trainer says, “It is believed that the ‘surfing’ or bow riding [behaviors] that dolphins exhibit in front of boats may have had its genesis in riding in front, or in the wake, of big whales.”
Like many +R trainers, Ramirez believes that the animals he trains learn to do all sorts of amazing acrobatic feats through a process called positive reinforcement, and more specifically through sonic “markers,” usually clicks from a clicker that signal a food reward may be coming later. In fact, these trainers believe that all animals—not just dolphins—learn the same way, through a process called operant conditioning.
Do Dogs and Dolphins (and Jellyfish) Learn the Same Way?
All animals—at least those who can learn new behaviors (and jellyfish don’t fit that category)—learn the same way. But I don’t think it’s through operant conditioning. In actual fact, operant conditioning only creates a fairly convincing facsimile of how animals learn, and usually only under very tightly-controlled conditions. In fact it’s well known that behaviors learned via operant conditioning tend to break down whenever strong drives and instincts are involved.
So how do animals really learn?
According to a model called Natural Dog Training—created by dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan—all behavior and learning are the products of certain properties of physics. Some obvious examples include the kind of almost magnetic attraction most dogs have for other dogs, for their owners, their toys, food dish, etc.
When a dog has strong feelings of attraction for something he tends to move toward it in a straight line. But, according Behan’s model, dogs also have feelings of resistance to things like going to the vet’s office, or getting a bath, etc. Resistance is literally the polar opposite of attraction. When a dog has strong feelings of resistance he tries to move away from the things that generate those feelings. Meanwhile, when a dog feels a mixture of both attraction and resistance he’ll move in a curvilinear fashion.
Add to this process the idea that when a dog moves toward an object of attraction, doing so creates pleasurable feelings of physical momentum and emotional flow, the same types of feelings we have when we’re driving along on an open highway, or playing golf or tennis, or even just watching a game of football on TV, where we may unconsciously project our emotional centers of gravity onto the wide receiver, etc.
Now think of a dog flying through the air to catch a frisbee or a ball-happy dog running full bore after a tennis ball or Kong. That’s pure attraction, which, again, also creates pleasurable feelings of physical momentum and a pure flow of emotion.
So while it’s true that when a puppy learns to sit for a treat, operant conditioning—or a reasonable facsimile thereof—is enough to explain that process. However, what’s missing from that scenario is that the puppy has to first have a feeling of attraction for the treat and for the person holding it. You can’t get a puppy to sit for a treat unless he’s focused on you and has feelings of physical and emotional attraction for you and the treat.
Attraction + Momentum = Flow
However, things get a bit more complicated when you’re training a dog to herd sheep or run an agility course or run full speed off a diving platform
For the agility course the dog has to have feelings of attraction for moving toward and through the various challenges in the course. The diving dog is motivated by the way his owner builds his attraction to a prey object.
That said, the dog is also pushing past resistance, which is the polar opposite of attraction.
When dolphins are trained to swim into a harbor, then dive deep and search for locations of enemy mines, they need to have more motivation than an eventual “reward” from a chum bucket back at the “base.” That reward is the feeling of seeking and finding “prey,” just as it is for dogs.
There’s a lot more to the Natural Dog Training model of learning than attraction and resistance or the pleasures of physical momentum and emotional flow. But on the most fundamental level, there is really no difference between the way a jellyfish is attracted to its prey, the way fundamental particles are attracted to one another, and the way dogs learn complex new behaviors.
It’s all a matter of attraction, resistance, and a feeling of flow.
Lee Charles Kelley
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”