Tag: Vrije University

Those deeper ways of listening

How humans and animals communicate with each other has more than an edge of mystery to it!

We sleep with our bedroom door open to the main run of the rest of the house. Generally, all six dogs sleep in our bedroom unless it is a very warm night when some of them may choose the cooler tiled surface of the kitchen floor.

Cleo, our female German Shepherd, has a bit of a sensitive stomach and it is not unknown for her to need to be let outside in the middle of the night. Just a couple of nights ago her need for a ‘poo’ break came at 02:40!

But the point of this is that no matter how deeply I am sleeping, all it takes is a short, quiet whimper next to my side of bed and I am instantly awake. I need no time at all to know that Cleo has to be let outside from our bedroom door that opens out onto the deck. A few minutes later I hear her feet padding along the wooden boards of the deck and she is let back in to the bedroom.

Thus this demonstrates how well I understand her and in turn how well she acutely listens to me.

Just look at this photograph.

The connection, the intensity, of her attention towards me. And this was just from me pointing the camera at her and ‘click, clicking’ my tongue.

Moving on!

My introduction today was inspired by an article that I recently read on the Care2 site and that I want to share with you. Here it is.

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Can Humans Understand When Animals Are in Distress?

By: Laura Burge   August 13, 2017

About Laura   Follow Laura at @literarylaura

Have you ever jumped at the sound of birds fighting or a squirrel screaming? Heard an animal make a sound somewhere nearby that made your heart race?

More than one hundred years ago, Darwin suggested that there was a universal understanding of certain animal vocalizations — a way of expressing emotion that went all the way back to the Earth’s earliest animals. Now, researchers are re-examining that theory, and they’re making some interesting headway.

In a study published in the journal “Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,” researchers decided to explore the idea that animal vocalizations, including distress calls, might be recognizable across different species — and even into different animal classes.

Earlier research delved into whether or not humans could detect which emotion, or signal, another mammal was using, but this study is the first to examine other vertebrates as well. Amphibians and reptiles joined the club, and, perhaps surprisingly, humans did pretty well determining what these animals were trying to communicate.

The researchers primarily looked into whether or not people listening to certain animal sounds would be able to detect the level of arousal — high or low — that an animal expressed vocally. High arousal indicates an animal in distress, expressing desperate or negative screams, who might be calling out because of a fight, a predator in the area or another perceived danger. Scientists believe that these sounds are part of an old signaling system.

Researchers asked 75 college-aged individuals to listen to sounds from nine different species. In order to account for language differences, these people included English, German and Mandarin speakers.

Scientists collected 180 recordings of animal vocalizations, reflecting high or low levels of excitement, such as “the sounds of frogs in competition for mates, monkeys reacting to danger or ravens confronted by a dominant bird,” and included humans in that list, instructing actors to react neutrally or with different, heightened emotions while speaking Tamil.

The 75 people were then asked to identify which vocalization out of paired sounds from the same species represented the higher level of arousal.

In this study, the results showed that people identified the correct “emotion,” roughly speaking, better than expected by chance. Here is how the accuracy broke down across species:

  • Humans: 95 percent correct
  • Giant panda: 94 percent correct
  • Hourglass tree frog: 90 percent correct
  • African bush elephant: 88 percent correct
  • American alligator: 87 percent correct
  • Black-capped chickadee: 85 percent correct
  • Pig: 68 percent correct
  • Common raven: 62 percent correct
  • Barbary macaque (monkey): 60 percent correct

It seems strange that people were less able to identify the distress call of a monkey than a frog, but Harold Gouzoules, a bioacoustician and animal behavior expert at Emory University, posits that the monkey calls may have sounded less extreme in intensity than those of the other species, making it harder to tell the difference.

“Our study shows that humans are naturally able to recognize emotional arousal across all classes of vocalizing animals,” said Piera Filippi, who studies the evolution of cognition and communication at the Vrije University Brussels in Belgium.

This doesn’t mean that humans should feel confident in interpreting animal emotions or body language in general, though. Those behaviors can vary greatly, and humans are prone to misinterpretation and anthropomorphism. You wouldn’t, for example, want to assume a wolf baring its teeth is simply smiling at you.

Naturally, much remains to be studied in the effort to understand a wider range of animal emotions. Filippi hopes to repeat the experiment, but with the black-capped chickadees taking the place of the college-aged humans in interpreting the distress calls. It will be interesting to see if this understanding between humans and other animals goes both ways.

Could there be a beneficial reason for animals to understand each other’s distress calls? What do you think?

Photo Credit: Valentino Funghi/Unsplash

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Just so long as too many different animals don’t all sound out distress calls at the same time around here!