Jan 11, 2023
Welcome back, friends—and a very happy new year! For our first episode of 2023 we're going big. We're examining the minds of some of the most massive, majestic megafauna around.
My guest today is Dr. Joshua Plotnik. Josh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Hunter College, and the director of the Comparative Cognition for Conservation Lab. His work focuses on elephants—Asian elephants in particular. Josh studies how these creatures perceive and think, how they solve problems and make decisions. As you’ll hear, Josh and his colleagues are doing this work, not just to better understand elephant cognition, but also to inform elephant conservation.
In this conversation, Josh and I do a healthy bit of Elephants 101. We consider a few of the most widely repeated ideas about elephants—ideas you’ve probably heard, like that they have exceptional memories and that they mourn their dead. We talk about the three different species of elephants and what we can say about the differences between them. We talk about how elephants use their tusks and their ridiculously dexterous trunks. We talk about how elephants communicate and what their social lives are like. We touch on Dumbo (the well-known Disney character) and Happy (an elephant at the Bronx Zoo who recently became the focus of debates about animal personhood). We of course discuss many of Josh’s fascinating findings on elephant cognition—including his findings about mirror self-recognition, consoling behavior, cooperative problem solving, and personality. We also touch on human-elephant conflict, convergent evolution, and the importance of taking the elephant’s perspective.
One of our resolutions for the show this year is to grow, to find ways to reach a bigger audience. You can help us do that, if you like, by recommending us to a friend, leaving us a rating, or maybe even writing a review. (We're actually really hurting for reviews, folks—we haven’t had a new one in ages, so any help on that front would be most gratefully appreciated.) Another resolution we have is to connect more with you, our audience, and learn more about what you’re interested in. So we’d love to hear from you—you can find us on social media or reach out to as at: email@example.com.
One last bit of housekeeping: applications are now open for the 2023 Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute, or DISI. The institute will be held this summer in St Andrews, Scotland. If you are interested in the kinds of stuff we talk about on the show—mind, cognition, intelligence broadly construed—you should definitely consider applying. More info at: disi.org.
Alright friends, on to my conversation with Josh Plotnik. I think you'll agree that Josh is quite the genial guide to the elephant mind. And he gives us a ton to think about here. Enjoy!
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
5:00 – The Mythbusters episode about whether elephants are afraid of mice.
6:45 – An academic article about the possibility that elephants populated certain land masses by swimming to them.
17:30 — The researcher Shermin de Silva works on elephants in Sri Lanka.
19:00 – A first study finding that African elephants can follow human pointing gestures. A later study by Dr. Plotnik and colleagues finding that Asian elephants do not follow human pointing gestures.
23:00 – A study quantifying different aspects of the elephant brain.
24:00 – For some of the latest findings about cephalopods, see our episode ‘The Savvy Cephalopod’ with Dr. Alex Schnell.
26:30 – A research article on “handedness” (aka laterality) in elephants.
27:30 – The elephant trunk is extraordinarily dexterous, in part because of its “fingers.” A recent study of the basis for this dexterity. For example, elephants can peel bananas (video) and also use their trunks to suction up objects like chips (research article).
30:00 – A research article on the production and interpretation of “periscoping” behavior in elephants.
33:45 – A study by Dr. Plotnik and Frans de Waal about elephant consolation behavior.
35:00 – Images on Twitter of young elephants sucking their trunks, presumably as self-consoling behavior.
37:00 – A research article on elephant’s “seismic communication.”
53:00 – A popular essay by Jill Lepore about Happy the elephant, and the legal case surrounding whether or not she should be considered a “person.”
55:30 – The original study by Dr. Plotnik and colleagues on cooperative problem solving in elephants.
57:30 – A later study by Li-Li Li, Dr. Plotnik and colleagues on how elephants are able to sustain cooperation.
1:00:00 – A review article about research on Theory of Mind in animals.
1:01:00 – A study by Sarah Jacobson, Dr. Plotnik, and colleagues using puzzle boxes to understand elephant innovation and problem solving. The same study examined personality factors that predict success on the task.
1:04:00 – See also our recent episode on animal personality.
1:07:00 – See a recent review paper by Dr. Plotnik and a colleague on elephant cognition in the context of human-elephant conflict.
1:16:30 – Along with colleagues, Dr. Plotnik founded the organization Think Elephants International.
Dr. Plotnik recommends:
Elephants, by Hannah Mumby
(see also earlier books by Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Joyce Poole)
A Primate’s Memoir, by Robert Sapolsky
Chimpanzee Politics, by Frans de Waal
(see also de Waal’s more recent books)
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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