Thursday, January 30, 2014

Nonverbal thinking is what animals do

Humans do a lot of verbal thinking and this makes it hard to understand nonverbal thinking. Verbal thinking means having words and sentences occur to you. This happens when we talk or write of course, but it also frequently happens without external expression, inside our heads as it were.

The concept of thinking in humans is sometimes limited to verbal thinking, in which case animals do not think. But humans do lots of nonverbal thinking as well and this is what animals do.

Nonverbal thinking occurs whenever there is intelligent behavior. An example of nonverbal thinking in humans is eating a meal, piece by piece and sip by sip, all the while talking about something else. Making the many decision required to eat the meal requires a lot of nonverbal thought. As discussed in the last post, horses also exhibit elaborate intelligent behavior when grazing. This too is nonverbal thinking.

If you watch yourself carefully you will see that you do a great deal of nonverbal thinking as you move about and do stuff. Every action involves multiple decisions.

Moreover you need a great deal of understanding of the world around you in order to do what you do, even to do the simplest things. And so it is with horses and other critters. The challenge is to figure out what the horse or other animal understands, that is, what concepts do they use when they think non-verbally?

For example simply putting on your socks requires knowing what socks are, knowing that you need to put them on, knowing where the are, knowing how to get there, knowing how to select them, knowing how to get them out, knowing where to go to put them on, and knowing how to put them on. That is a lot of knowing and a lot of thinking.

Many things that horses and other animals do are just as complicated as putting on your socks. These actions require a lot of nonverbal thought. The challenge is to figure out what this thinking is and how to describe it, especially the concepts that the critter must have in order to do what they do.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Horses make a lot of decisions

In the last post I talked about how beaver are constantly making local decisions when building their dams. Instinct may give the beaver the knowledge they need to make these decisions but it does not make the decisions for them. Instinct is a way of knowing, not a way of thinking.

The same is true for horses, only the horse's decision making may not be as obvious since they are not building stuff. When they are on their own the horse's number one activity is grazing and they spend many hours doing it. Grazing involves almost continuous decision making because you have to constantly decide which specific thing to eat next.

To see this consider the following thought experiment. You are in a pasture and you pluck a bit of grass. Now you want to pluck a second bit. How many possibilities are there to choose from? Even if you do not move there are a great many, so you have to make a local decision.

People do this too of course, for example repeatedly choosing from the different things on their plate. You can watch yourself do it. What is especially important is that this decision making typically does not involve verbal thinking, so horses can do it too. A lot of thinking is nonverbal.

Moreover, as I described in an earlier post, horses often "graze in motion" which means taking a step or two every few seconds. When to step and where also requires making decisions.

Then there is the fact that the herd as a whole (or in part) often moves more or less together. How this is done is the topic of much scientific research but it clearly involves a great deal of decision making by the horses involved.

Sometimes this decision making regarding what to eat next involves food that is not close by, or even in sight. The entire herd may abruptly go a long distance, into a new field, to graze on some bushes. Or a single horse may do it, leaving the herd behind.

The point is that horses make a lot of decisions as they do what they do and decision making is a form of thinking.