Will we ever be able to have a conversation with animals?

14 October 2012

Question

Will we ever be able to have a conversation with animals?

Answer

Alan - And now, with a question of a completely different type, here's Hannah Critchlow with our Question of the Week.

Hannah - This week, we find out if there will ever be a real life Dr. Doolittle.

Hannah H. - Hi. My name is Hannah Hockley and I'm from Bristol, and I wondered, will we ever be able to have a conversation with animals?

Hannah - So what's the scientific possibility of this and what do we count as a conversation anyway? We call up somebody who spends his working week looking into these very questions.

Erich - Hello. My name is Erich Jarvis. I am an Associate Professor in Neuroscience at the Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, North Carolina. There are several ways of thinking about what it means to have conversations with animals. One way is reciprocal, learned vocal communication that is spoken language, which we humans do with each other. Surprisingly, we can do this in a rudimentary fashion with some animals that can learn to speak like African grey parrots. These species are vocal learners, meaning that they have the ability to imitate sounds, and then there are other forms of communication, where an animal such as dogs will understand human's speech words, but not be able to produce them. And many animals, including monkeys or cats and so on will be able to understand and to produce facial expressions, eye movements, body language so to speak, and other forms of communication.

Hannah - But if we think about the first type of communication that we humans have, so vocal intelligence reciprocal communication, is this possible with animals?

Erich - I believe that many have a greater capacity for complex understanding of what we call comprehension of sounds, but not the ability to produce those sounds. My research has shown that those animals that have the ability to produce them, that is to produce the imitated sounds like humans, have specialised areas in their forebrains that control vocal learning and the production of the learned sounds. And these areas have so far not been found in species that can't do vocal learning. Further, we've been investigating ways in which we can manipulate the brain circuits of such non-human animals to determine if we can induce better control of their vocalisations. If successful one day, in my lifetime or later, then yes, I believe we will be able to communicate with other animals more verbally in a reciprocal manner than what we do now.

Hannah - So, neuroscientists are tweaking with the vocal learning centres at the front of the brains of animals, altering the activity in these circuits to learn how they work. And they think that in the future, we may be able to have more reciprocal vocal conversations with a number of different animals. Sticking with expressing ourselves, we pose our next question.

George - Hello I'm George Cotcher-Riley from Wirral and my question for the Naked Scientists is, was prehistoric art like cave paintings only done in caves or is that the only place untouched enough for it to be preserved?

Hannah - So, did our ancestors paint and draw all over the place or did they just hang their art works in caves? Send us your thoughts by posting on the Naked Scientists Facebook page, tweet@nakedscientists, email chris@thenakedscientists.com, or join in the debate on our forum, which is at nakedscientists.com/forum.

Chris - Hannah Critchlow.

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