An Interview with Diana Reiss


When you’re absorbed in the rhythm of dolphins:
You sort of become one of them
You’re entranced
You’re in a nonverbal mode

An Interview with Diana Reiss


When you’re absorbed in the rhythm of dolphins:
You sort of become one of them
You’re entranced
You’re in a nonverbal mode

An Interview with Diana Reiss

Meehan Crist
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Dolphins—like humans, great apes, and elephants, among other creatures—are self-aware. This was first proven by animal cognition researcher Diana Reiss, who gave dolphins the mirror self-recognition test, in which researchers place a mark on an animal where the animal can’t see it—above a dolphin’s eye, for example—then watch how the animal reacts in front of a mirror. Dolphins passed the test with flying colors. Also, they loved using the mirror to look at their own genitals, which are positioned in a place they can’t normally see. (Reiss has some great video footage of this.)

In another groundbreaking study, Reiss designed an underwater keyboard composed of nine blank keys that could be fitted with simple white symbols. When a dolphin pressed a key, the animal would hear a synthesized whistle, then get the treat associated with the symbol: a ball, a fish, a rub on the belly. Remarkably, the dolphins not only pressed the symbols for items they preferred, they quickly learned to imitate the whistles and incorporated them into their communication with each other. Reiss is still trying to figure out what they’re saying. 

A professor of psychology at Hunter College in the graduate program of Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, Reiss was a scientific adviser on the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove and is the author of The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives

When I arrived at her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she was on the phone, frantically arranging for the rescue of a massive black Newfoundland, who would arrive (drooling heavily) on her doorstep just a few days later. She apologized profusely for the delay as we settled onto the plush white couches in her living room. As we 50 talked, her giant black cat sashayed between us, its bushy tail tickling our noses.

—Meehan Crist



THE BELIEVER: Your career as a scientist has been built on trying to understand animal minds, a project that, up until just a few decades ago, would have been rejected by much of the scientific community. Scientists were supposed to look only at behavior. So I wonder what you mean when you say, in your book, “Consciousness should, in principle, be available to scientific inquiry.”

DIANA REISS: It doesn’t mean we should understand it, but we should at least find ways to look at it. I think it challenges scientists to think about, first of all: how do we define consciousness? Is it something separate from just the processing of the brain? Because maybe that’s all it is, and that’s fine, but we need to define it, at least, so we can say, “If we see this in humans, do we see it in other animals?” I think that, in principle, if we can study something called X in humans, we should be able to study X in nonhumans.

BLVR: Consciousness is just so complicated. We don’t have any working definition of it, even for humans.

DR: Yeah, I think that’s one of the issues. That takes us into the mirror self-recognition test. I’ve tried to use simple tools, and you can’t get much more simple than a mirror. It’s simply a reflective surface that has potential information, and you can look at how different organisms make sense of, or interpret, that information. That’s why I like it. Whether you’re a highly visual creature or not—and dolphins aren’t. You wouldn’t argue that dolphins are more visual than dogs, or birds. I mean, pigeons have amazing visual acuity. So do cats, yet they both fail to interpret what they see in a mirror correctly. And yet we can.

BLVR: We interpret that information on the reflective surface to be an image of ourselves. But there just seems to be this massive conceptual and experimental hurdle when you’re trying to understand intelligence in a creature that has such an alien mind.

DR: Oh, absolutely. I mean this is a huge issue for me. In fact, I’ve had dreams about this.

BLVR: What are the dreams about?

DR: I had this really fantastic dream years ago that I was in this dolphin pool and I’d been searching to understand their intelligence. Strangely enough—I’m scared to say this out loud—but the facility looked very much like the National Aquarium, and this was before I ever saw the National Aquarium. It’s this big round room and it was nothing like where I was doing research at the time. So I’m in this pool working with this one particular dolphin, and there are other dolphins around, and suddenly, I get it. It’s clear as a bell, the nature of their communication. You know these dreams where you wake up and go, “What was it?” Well, I didn’t write it down. I remember seeing all these silhouettes of all these people—there were windows around the pool, people looking, and I’m thinking, I hope they’re seeing this. Because it was so evident to me and—I’m getting chills as I talk about this—I remember getting out of the pool and I said, “Did you see it? Did you see it?” And they said, “See what?” And then the dream stops. I wake

In some ways, that dream was like when I was working with this female dolphin and using a “time-out,” which is a pretty classical method to correct behavior, where you stand with your back to the animal. I had given her a frozen fish, which she didn’t like, and suddenly she’s over there across the pool, up high out of the water, with her back to me. I’m thinking, Is it possible she’s really giving me a timeout? Someone who didn’t know our history of interaction would be standing off to the side not understanding anything about it. Meaning develops between humans or other organisms. We often synchronize our behavior patterns over time and they become meaningful to us. Sometimes they involve symbols, like we say, “OK, I’m going to use the word glasses to represent this [holds up her glasses].” Sometimes it’s much less formal, such as, “When I give you that look, it means this,” and the more familiar you get—this is not my term—the more familiar one gets with another, the more you interpret. Familiarity breeds interpretation. We certainly know this from human relationships. My background was in communication theory and systems, and in part of my PhD thesis I talked about: how do patterns of behavior become synchronized into communicative patterns? I wasn’t studying that at the time, but I couldn’t have asked for better behavior than the “time-out.”

BLVR: Obviously, you can’t publish a scientific paper on that one possible instance of a “time-out” behavior, but when scientists write for a popular audience, the rules of scientific evidence are put aside to some degree. Is it freeing to be able to use anecdotes when you’re not writing for a scientific audience?

DR: Well, I think more and more of us are realizing that we can talk about these anecdotes in certain circles and even put multiple anecdotes in a paper, then say, “What is this suggesting?” There’s this whole thing now, particularly with primates, of looking at anecdotal evidence more systematically, sort of doing a meta-analysis. Something systematic, some trend, starts showing up. I think anecdotes are terribly important. You can’t say, “It means this,” but when you look at anecdotes systematically, you start getting the flavor of, perhaps, what these animals are like.

BLVR: You seem to have—it’s both a tension and a beautiful symbiotic relationship between intuition and experimentation. You talk about not wanting to just observe or to just do experiments, but also to absorb the dolphins’ behavior. You just want to be around them. I wonder what led you to that model of conducting research, because in some ways it could seem very “unscientific.”

DR: I don’t think it is, because I think that the best scientists are really good observers. Most scientists say that there is power in observation, of course. You’re at a microscope and you’re really good at seeing something that no one else has seen—that pattern no one else has seen even though everybody’s looking at the same thing. It’s that sensitivity, but you have to get out of your own way to do it. Diane Fosse—you know who she was?

BLVR: Yeah, the zoologist who studied gorillas in Rwanda.

DR: She said that when she was in the presence of a gorilla she became completely absorbed into their rhythm—into the gorilla’s presence, their rhythm, their movements. I do this with the dolphins when I’m at a dolphin pool. I don’t even want people around me. I’m really focused. I did this with Humphrey, too [the humpback whale who swam into San Francisco Bay and got stuck up the Sacramento River in 1985, and that Reiss helped guide back to safety]. You’re with them, you sort of become one with them, you’re seeing them, you’re watching the spatial changes between them, you’re watching the movement, you’re getting into the rhythm of the whole thing, you’re seeing subtleties, the subtleties you can see that make sense to you. You’re sort of at one with them as much as you can be. It just happens. You’re entranced, entrained. When I was working with Humphrey, somebody like Howard Cosell would come up to me and try to say something to me—I couldn’t speak. I lost my capacity to speak, because I was in a different mode. I was in a nonverbal mode.

BLVR: Visual artists talk about that all the time, how if they’re drawing they can’t talk because they’re just not using that language part of their brain.

DR: It is a different part of your brain. I was a modern dancer when I was a kid—and I was a sculptor later—and when you’re dancing, you’re in that flow and you have to be alone. That’s what I mean by: you may be wrong in what you’re seeing and your interpretation, but it’s what you have. I think that’s true for us with other people, as well. We don’t know what’s in the mind of another person or what another person means when they’re saying something. Meaning is here [points to her head]. That’s communication theory 101. Meaning doesn’t exist out there, it exists in the person that’s doing the interpretation, and whether it’s with people or other animals, you never know for sure.

In his wonderful book King Solomon’s Ring: New Light on Animals’ Ways, Konrad Lorenz talks about this myth of King Solomon, who had this magic ring that allowed him to communicate with animals. It’s a biblical story, and Lorenz, who was the first ethologist who studied animal behavior, said perhaps King Solomon didn’t have a magical ring, but he had the power of observation, and that allowed him to learn from the animals, to see what they were doing. I think that’s a gift that we all seek, and some of us may have it more so than others, in the sense that we can observe without being distracted.

BLVR: It’s interesting—Santiago RamÓn y Cajal [the Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist] looks through a microscope and he sees things in the tangle of neuronal tissue that other people can’t see, partly because he’s lived in it and with it and thought about it and dreamed about it, and he looks down there and he sees those dendritic spines and he thinks, That matters; that means something. But there’s this added complication for anyone studying animal cognition, as if all that understanding of how intuition works in science somehow gets thrown out the window because of anxiety about anthropomorphizing. The tools that are available to any scientist are somehow called into question when you use them with animals.

DR: It’s much more parsimonious to start from an evolutionary perspective. Life evolved. We look at the roots of our own behavior in the rest of the animal world. We didn’t evolve de novo. Donald Griffin, who wrote a book about the question of animal consciousness, makes the point much better than I could, which is: let’s think about the evolutionary continuity of thinking, of consciousness, in other animals. We have the same building blocks in the brain. They may be organized differently. There may be a difference in degree, but is there really a difference in kind? It would be taking a Cartesian point of view to say that we are alone as thinking creatures on this planet and that everything else is devoid of thought. We have the ghost in the machine. That seems so un-parsimonious; I mean, that is religion to me. With everything I’ve ever seen in animals, I find it almost impossible to believe that there’s no thought involved—using the term thought to mean not just an unconscious act.

BLVR: And yet what the texture of that thought might be— even what it is you’re looking for—is totally mysterious.

DR: All we have is behavior, so how can we investigate? How can we look at behavior; how can we be clever as scientists; how can we design experiments that let the animals show us what they’re capable of? That’s what my challenge has been. I’m not really interested in training dolphins to do things. You can learn a lot by training a dolphin, and I think that’s important, but when you want to talk about intelligence, how can we give them opportunities to show us the nature of their world?

For me the mirror is one of those things. We can use it as a comparative tool to say: let’s just look at the way lots of species deal with this very similar thing. With a keyboard, if we simply give them something they can interact with, that gives them some choice and control. We give them certain keys, we’re developing some elements they can use to a certain extent, but what will they do with it? In terms of our interpretation, we may be way off base.

BLVR: And how do you judge whether your interpretations are close to what might be happening in the mind of a dolphin?

DR: So one of the things you said that is really important to me is this notion that it could be such an alien intelligence that we wouldn’t recognize it if we saw it right in front of us. That is my biggest concern. That they’re doing things and we are totally blind and deaf to what they do, even on a very simple level. When I did this work at Marine World, I used to say to students, “We are blind and deaf to what they’re doing. I want you to spend the first week—don’t take anything with you—I want you to sit there by yourself and just watch them.” Afterward, they’d come in and say, “You know what they were doing…!” Even doing that helps connect you and get you trained to start seeing and listening.

Dolphins couldn’t be more different from us in body form and evolutionary history, and yet there’s something that people historically—in myths, in histories—have related: there’s something about dolphins that seems intelligent. I’m very interested in what that is. Because you see it. They’re doing something. Even though they look like a fish, more like a fish than like us, there is this warm-eyed mammal, this eye-to-eye contact. There’s somebody in there.


BLVR: What is the most surprising thing you’ve ever seen a dolphin do, something that totally changed the way you think about dolphin minds?

DR: I think I’m going go with three things, and they’re of a very different nature. Once I was watching two mothers, two females that I worked with. One had given birth, and forty-eight hours later the other female, Circe, was ready to give birth. I had been studying their vocal behavior, watching them and recording data, and I was already trying to understand their kind of communication. So Circe was in labor and she was younger and she didn’t know what to do. Teri, the other mother, was watching this whole thing very vigilantly with her own calf. What really amazed me was, as soon as Circe gave birth, Teri suddenly pushed the father, who was still in the pool, up against the wall right under my feet. She had her calf pushed up against the father right below me. I saw Teri turn her head right to where Circe was, and she did this very complex whistle, and Circe made a beeline for her own calf. [As described in Reiss’s book, the newborn calf had been struggling, flailing down toward the bottom of the pool.] At that point, Circe just followed everything Teri had done when her own calf was born. [Newborn dolphins need to be pushed up to the surface by their mothers so they can breathe—so they don’t drown.] It was about as clear a case of communication and intent as I ever saw.

That was one of those “wow” moments, because even though I didn’t have that magical decoder ring to decipher Teri’s whistle, it was clear to me that these animals were doing something. It was communicative, it was very intentional, and it made me feel like, Yes, there’s really something here. We have no idea what that whistle was about. I rushed in to analyze it on my equipment, and it had Teri’s initial—her own contact call—in the beginning, and then it was almost like a very frequency-modulated, long sequence that was one continuous sound. I thought, What is this all about? And I had no clue.

Now, years before, I had been in a research lab in France, where I did part of my doctoral work. I got a grant from the French government, so I was there for close to two years working with this expert in what’s called bioacoustics, which is how animals—even humans—produce sounds and music. Did you know there are whistle languages in the world?

BLVR: No, I didn’t.

DR: I looked at these whistle languages, where you see these almost analogous kinds of contours for whole sentences in humans. Humans can whistle something that sounds very much like what you hear with a dolphin [she whistles], and with humans it’s one sentence. If you heard a bird or a dolphin do it, you’d probably think it was much more simple. But if we don’t know the level of decoding, we can’t crack the code. So when I saw Teri whistle to Circi, I flashed back on the whistle language and I thought, We’ve got to find a way to decode that.

BLVR: Some bird researchers have begun to break down birdsong into syllables. Has that kind of syllable breakdown happened with dolphins?

DR: No, and it’s really interesting, because with birdsong, they have call notes. Researchers know they’ll use calls between each other, but then they have song, and the song of many birds incorporates some of these call notes. So of course the question is, What’s going on here? Is there some kind of syntactical structure? Do these calls mean things in this song, or is it just that the birds are employing the same elements in birdsong and the meaning is in the patterning?

BLVR: You’ve mentioned a Rosetta Stone for dolphin language, a key to start decoding what they’re saying. What might that key look like?

DR: Well, it was the keyboard for me. I had another one of those “wow” moments when we saw on the first day of the study how quickly the dolphins started imitating the sounds. The other was the mirror study. Those were the moments where you get the chills running up and down your arm and you’re like, I’m the only one who’s seen this so far. It’s really amazing when you get that feeling. It’s like a high for a scientist.

BLVR: How did you arrive at that “wow” moment with the keyboard study?

DR: So the other work had been teaching dolphins to comprehend hand gestures and sequences of what they call gestural language, reinforced with fish. I didn’t want to give dolphins fish for what they were doing. I thought it would get in the way.

We had Teri and Circe and their two calves, Pan and Delphi, who were now eleven months old, and I had designed this keyboard so that they could hit a key and they would hear a computer-synthesized whistle, and they would get a particular object or a rub on the belly. It was basically a giant vending machine for dolphins. We knew exactly when they pressed, what was hit, how many times they hit a key in this position, that position—we moved the keys around—what they were hitting for, all that stuff.

But what wowed me was what they were doing vocally. The dolphins explored the keyboard, and it looked very random at first—they would hit, they would get things. I’m listening in my headsets. Pan hits the “ball” key. He hits for “rub.” And they’re not hitting blank keys. Then at one point, after Pan had hit “ball” and had heard the sound nineteen times, all of a sudden I start hearing [she whistles] and I’m thinking, He didn’t hit the key. Is this my imagination? Are they really doing it? I couldn’t really see anything visual to confirm this. I just had my ability to hear. I heard it clear as a bell: they were emulating the signal. What was remarkable was that we have this system where we can localize sound in the pool, and I realized that not only was he imitating this sound after he hit the key, but now he would take the ball off to the side and he would push it and whistle as he’s pushing this ball. Then he would come to the keyboard, scan it and go [she whistles], make the right whistle and hit the right key. This is in one session!

And I thought, This is what little kids do, you know, when they get that toy and Mommy says, “Oh, here’s the truck,” or “Here’s the dolly,” and they hear “dolly” as they get the dolly, and then the child has the dolly and she’s going, “Oh, dolly, dolly.” It’s almost like crib talk. And this is a dolphin who was doing this. All they had to do was hit a key to get what they wanted. That’s all it took. They didn’t have to do anything else. So why did they do this? They weren’t doing it in a random way. They weren’t whistling all around the pool. It was right after they heard the sound, when they got this object.

BLVR: And they continued to imitate the sounds?

DR: But the fact that they imitated them with such fidelity! The model sounds were different than the dolphins’ own sounds. They were within the time-frequency parameters—I designed it so that the dolphins could imitate the sound physically, but that they weren’t the same signals. The model sounds had all sorts of markers on them, flat ends so we could tell really easily. Here’s how amazing these animals are! I mean, this is an alien species to us. They couldn’t be more different, so when they would imitate a signal and match the exact time—the ball whistle was 1.26 seconds on the dot—it tells us what’s salient to them. They match the frequency modulation exactly. This is what I mean when I say “Rosetta Stone.”

BLVR: So now you know the time duration and frequency modulation of a whistle means something, even if you don’t know what it means. Even if you can’t decode it, you’re getting the salient elements of the code.

DR: Yeah. When they first imitated it, they did something else that was really remarkable. They did what we call segmentation, like children. When young children learn a word, often they repeat parts of it, so they break it up into segments. Young children might say the word banana, and might say nana first, imitating what they heard last. It’s called the “recency effect.” We see this for learning lists: we remember what we just heard. Then the children will often say the beginning of the word, which is called the “primacy effect,” and then they’ll put it all together, which is exactly what we got from the dolphins. This was the first evidence that they were vocally mimetic. There had been all sorts of anecdotal reporting about dolphins being highly imitative behaviorally and vocally, but this was the first example we had where we didn’t train them to mimic in an experimental condition.

And we weren’t reinforcing it with fish. We actually could look at something non-anecdotally, look at it systematically to see—using the keyboard, giving them choice and control over a system—what their interests were, what was salient to them, and learn more, I think, about vocal learning and their abilities than if we had trained them.

BLVR: You said before that you thought fish would get in the way. What do you mean by that?

DR: Let’s say you’re working with children. Studies done in the ’80s with kids and behavioral modification have shown that if you take a child into a lab—if you’re working with Michael and saying, “Michael, can you name this?” [holds up her glasses] and Michael’s hungry, and Michael wants a cookie, and I finally shape Michael’s behavior to say “glasses,” and I give Michael a chocolate-chip cookie, he’ll learn. You’ll shape his vocal behavior so he’ll learn to say “glasses.” That works in terms of behavioral modification using primary food reinforcement, but often Michael won’t go out and use those words in a communicative way. The use of that word is a means to an end: to get that cookie. That’s not how we communicate, or how we learn.


BLVR: How did SETI [the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] get involved with funding your early research?

DR: If you look at the Planetary Society website, and you look at all the things they fund about exploration, and you see “Diana Reiss, dolphin research,” you go, What? What happened was, after I got my PhD I wanted to find a lab where I could start working. I happened to notice that the SETI group was down the road and I thought, Wow, we have a lot in common, because we’re both looking to understand signals from intelligences. Theirs just happens to be an exobiological approach. It turns out that I wasn’t the first to suggest they get involved in dolphin research. John Lilly, who had done work in the ’60s, had also reached out to them, unbeknownst to me and Frank Drake, who had come up with the Drake equation—do you know about the Drake equation?

BLVR: No, I don’t think so.

DR: Frank Drake is an astrophysicist. He was an astrophysicist at Cornell—you know, this is Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Philip Morrison, these guys. He came up with the Drake equation. It’s sort of a mental exercise. The equation says: how many suns might be in the universe; how many of those suns might have solar systems around them with planets; how many of those planets might be able to support life; how much life might evolve to intelligent life? It goes on and on.

So, John Lilly had come to the SETI Institute in the ’60s, when he was sort of in a heyday and getting all this funding. He lost a lot of his credibility—he got pseudo-science-y when he started giving dolphins acid and all that—but he inspired a lot of people in the beginning. He was the first one to talk about big brains, and the possibility that we were not alone as big-brained creatures on this planet, and SETI got so enamored that they formed this thing called “the Order of the Dolphin.”

BLVR: In part because they are so big-brained, some people say we shouldn’t be using dolphins in research at all anymore, right?

DR: I’m totally against dolphins being taken from the wild.

Most of the dolphins in aquariums in the United States— and there are not that many of them, all in all—have been born in these facilities. They’re not being taken from the wild. I think that whether we should continue to have dolphins in aquariums is a discussion we need to have, but if we do have them in captivity, we should be learning everything we can about these animals in a way that feeds back into their welfare. I’m really concerned that dolphins in other countries are treated in the most inhumane ways imaginable. My efforts are really focused on saving these animals in the wild, animals that are getting slaughtered. I want to make sure that not another animal is killed in this inhumane way.

BLVR: I assume you mean the animals that are slaughtered in the annual dolphin drive in Taiji, Japan, which is the subject of The Cove. How did you get involved with making that documentary?

DR: Right after I did the mirror study in 2001, a man named Hardy Jones approached me. He was a filmmaker who had been trying to document what was going on in Japan. And he said, “It would make a huge difference if you, as a scientist, would speak out about this.” I said, “I can’t believe this is even going on!” I knew it had gone on before, but I thought it had ended, and when he showed me the footage I couldn’t believe it. I did some double-checking, and when I realized that this was, indeed, the case, I said, “I’m stepping into the advocacy arena.” When I started, the only people really talking about this were either animalrights groups or some environmental groups, but they had absolutely no power to get this across. I thought, We have to get scientists to speak out and we also have to get zoo and aquarium professionals, who can reach millions of people all over the world, to start a movement to stop this.

BLVR: How did the movement coincide with the movie?

DR: We needed a cohesive voice. That’s not what was happening, because none of these environmental groups wanted to work together. So we formed ACT for Dolphins, which brought scientists and zoo and aquarium professionals together. Then I gave a talk, in 2005 at the Marine Mammal Conference, showing what I thought were distress calls in dolphins in the drive. Someone came up to me and said that a wealthy person—he said he had “the money of a shah”—wanted him to make a film about the environment that would make a difference. He said, “Somebody told me I should talk to you.” I literally leaped on this guy and said, “I want to show you this footage. You’ve gotta see this.” He looked at the footage and he said, “I can’t believe this.” That was it. That was how I met Louie Psihoyos, who became the director of The Cove.

BLVR: It seems as if your research and your activism are deeply connected, because if we better understood dolphin intelligence, there might be stronger grounds for putting a stop to inhumane practices.

DR: Yes.

BLVR: But as we’ve discussed, it’s difficult to prove anything about the character of animal minds, due partly to the necessary rigors of the scientific method. You told an interesting story in your book, about when you took the “fish” key away because one of the dolphins was pressing, pressing, pressing it, and how when you took it away he scanned the board and was like, Where’s my fish? He went and got a fish from the bottom of the tank and came back to the keyboard and hit a blank key with the fish in his mouth, and you say you had this moment of great frustration because this animal is trying to communicate with you, and you, for scientific reasons, can’t communicate back.

DR: That was total frustration.

BLVR: Do the rigors of scientific experimentation often get in the way—

DR: Override basic humanity?

BLVR: Well, yes. But do the rules also get in the way of discovery in some sense?

DR: I think the more you work with animals, you realize that the more you let them show you what the next steps are, the better.

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