TED Conversations

greg dahlen

Alumnus, academy of achievement


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What have you learned from animals?

I was thinking about squirrels and how they eat pine nuts and acorns, and this led me to watch YouTube videos how I could harvest pine nuts and acorns.

Hearing how animals emphasize smell led to me to read books and articles about perfume.

Sometimes I'll get down on all fours and walk like an animal to exercise my arms.

Hearing how jackals eat bones on the African plains helped me realize you can eat hard things. I used to think you couldn't eat a snail live because the shell was too hard. But now if I find a garden snail on my walk I'll eat it, shell and all. I discovered the shell really isn't all that hard.


Closing Statement from greg dahlen

I concluded that people do watch animals and think about what they do and learn from them but I wondered if they could go farther. For example, I wish there weren't "indecent exposure" laws, I wish we could go nude in public like when I want to go out and hang laundry on the line to dry.

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    Jul 18 2013: My dog is my instructor in inter-species communications. She also is the very model of "stopping to smell the roses"- and to smell everything else also along the way.
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      Jul 19 2013: So how have you learned from her universal smelling, do you use your own sense of smell more?

      By "inter-species communications," do you mean between her and human beings including you? Lots of people feel this, I don't have a dog so I don't experience it. What is it like?
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        Jul 19 2013: I do not smell things more. It is her slow pace of action that reminds me that sometimes there is no point in hurrying.

        By interspecies communication, I mean her communication with me.

        Do you have children? Before they are verbal, there is a lot of interpreting the baby's needs from other cues. The same is true for dogs. But the dog (relative to the baby) makes more effort to predict what I am going to do from my cues.

        Another interesting dimension here is that bulldogs are, I am told, just about the least intelligent of dogs, 79th for brains out of the 80 most common breeds.

        So she may not be the best sample of the potential for learning and verbal communication between dog and human.

        Obviously I am overwhelmed with love every time I look at her.
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          Jul 19 2013: Any idea why she smells things, F? Is it some leftover predatory instinct from when dogs were wolves? But that wouldn't explain smelling plants, would it?

          What is that when you see a dog moving along with his nose to the sidewalk like it has found something fascinating?

          What cues do you give her (by the way, what's her name?) By heading to the kitchen cabinet where her food bag is kept, she knows it's dinnertime? Do you think dogs enjoy their repetitive diets, in most cases don't they get kind of similar dogfood every night?
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        Jul 19 2013: It is their most important sense, with 400 times the sensitivity of human noses. I have to believe it evolved as their way of identifying food, other animals, and so forth.

        I expect she judges what I might do by simple actions or even smells. Whether I stand up, the posture in which I stand, maybe smells, where I am sitting, whether I catch her eye, the expression on my face... It is looking for repeated associations between what I do and what she gets.

        I think different dogs are much more attuned to what they eat than others. Some owners give their dogs a greater variety of food than others.
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          Jul 19 2013: not to be nitpicky, Fritzie, I had heard six times as sensitive. What's your source on the 400 number?
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        Jul 19 2013: I have read exactly one book written by a life scientist who specializes in animal behavior and dogs in particular. The book is called Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz, who teaches at Columbia.

        Here are some quotes from the chapter on smell:

        "Human noses have about six million sensory receptor sites, sheepdog noses over 200 million, beagle noses over three hundred miliion...it's been estimated that [the beagle's] sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours... We might notice if our coffee has been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar; a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full."
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          Jul 19 2013: thanks, Fritzie, I once talked to a the host of a radio pet show on the air about this topic, I seem to remember that he had said six times as sensitive. I wonder if he's right, or Alexandra is right, I wonder if there's some way they could both be right, maybe the dog's sensitivity changes under different conditions. I've actually heard we humans can detect a tiny scent in the air at one part per billion. It makes some sense to me that every creature that breathes through the nose would have a sensitive sense of smell as all that breathing gives the nose a lot of exercise. Are there creatures that breathe some other way than through the nose?

          I believe I called the pet show about police dogs, as we had just had an incident in Glendale where police dogs were used in a high-profile search. Rather a fascinating aspect of dog world. I heard one police officer pointing out that the police dogs are not necessarily super-friendly, they're bred to be high-strung, and that's the way they want them.

          Putting aside the experts, just using your intuition, would you think your dog's sense of smell is more sensitive than yours, by how much? I could maybe guess three times as much. I think for all of us our sense of smell picks up as we get hungrier, it's a natural mechanism that helps us find new food. I'm kind of suspicious when I see the dogs tracking a scent on the sidewalk, I wonder if it isn't some kind of show, they seem to lose the scent very quickly.

          I wonder if that thing you see in the movies, where they give the dog something scented with a person's scent and tell the dog go find that exact person, really works. Any experience with that?
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          Jul 21 2013: Thank you for this, Fritzie. My mom and I were talking about it and she was very skeptical of the 400 times as acute number, pointing out that the animal would be overwhelmed if this were true. Sounded logical to me, what do you think?
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        Jul 19 2013: I cannot compare my sense of smell with my dog's. One thing that is clear is that different breeds have different ability to smell, with the sense of smell, according to Horowitz, exponentially related to the number of receptors associated with smell.

        I would guess my dog has a worse sense of smell than many breeds, because she has such a short nose, being a flat-faced breed.

        Richard Feynman was interested in the question you posed last about how well dogs can track an individual's scent. He experimented on himself. That is he smelled an article of someones and then tried to track the smell on all fours like a dog. He found he could get pretty good at it.

        I have read the James Gleick biography on Feynman as well as a couple of his little autobiographies, so I cannot point you to which one provides this case.

        I have no background to speak of in the physiology of smell, but Entropy Driven is a biologist, Peter Lindsay is a science teacher, and Pabitra knows a great deal also about life science. Any might know.

        I will look it up quickly and see what I find.
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          Jul 19 2013: Interesting stuff, I hadn't thought about the effect of the flat nose. I think most animals might be more oriented toward smell as they walk on all fours and their nose is the farthest point forward on their face, and or least one of the points farthest forward, some of the first sense impressions they get will come through the nose.

          How did the Feynman go, he'd smell an article of someone's and then try to find them somewhere in the surrounding two block radius, like that?, so he would go walking outside on all fours, what said the neighbors?
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        Jul 19 2013: This might have been from his book with a title something like "What do you care what anyone thinks?"
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          Jul 19 2013: Just curious, Fritzie, would you be brave enough to walk a couple of blocks down the sidewalk on all fours, I consider myself brave but I'd feel a little self-conscious. I guess I could do it, though.
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        Jul 19 2013: I could not do this particular thing, but I am not self-conscious about public experiments.
      • Jul 20 2013: They say that when humans lose one of their senses, i.e. sight, that their other senses become much more acute. Our senses, because of their numbers, become sort of diffused vs. specific.
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          Jul 20 2013: well, dogs have the same five senses we have, don't they, smell, sight, taste, touch, hearing. What are you trying to say with this comment, M-L?
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        Jul 21 2013: I would go with those who have studied this scientifically. Even as a matter of logic, I think among humans that there are some of us who see or hear very much better than others and yet we are not overwhelmed because we adapt in other ways to be able to process, typically selectively, what our senses relay to us.
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          Jul 22 2013: well, maybe I'm hearing you wrong, Fritzie, my impression is that when someone says a dog's sense of smell is 400 times as sensitive as a human being, they mean that the animal's actual experience is 400 times more intense. Otherwise, if we just say that the animal is filtering the smell, then how is the statement that their sense is 400 times more sensitive interesting, because it doesn't tell us anything about their actual experience?

          If you go with my thinking here, my mother's statement would seem to still hold water?
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        Jul 22 2013: They judge in experiment whether animals can detect a smell in a large amount of unrelated material, like a pinch of something in different amounts of water.

        You may be at the point of finding greater satisfaction by reading up on this rather than speculating further on the point.

        Are you familiar with the children's books "Where's Waldo?" You can see everything in the pictures but you scan in such a way that you are looking only for a guy who looks like Waldo.

        All species very likely have the tools to screen out what is irrelevant in the moment, unless the particular person/animal has an irregularity in mental processing and cannot do that.
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          Jul 22 2013: thanks for replying, Fritzie, I'll have to think about it, now I get you better. I may go take a shower now, as my ride is leaving in an hour.

          Had I asked you what wild animals you see in your yard or on your walks with your dog? Down here by L.A. we see many lizards, also the occasional coyote and bobcat, those are very exciting.
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        Jul 22 2013: Nothing remarkable, typically. Squirrels and birds, though we have had owls and heron about. Ducks and seagulls. Occasionally but seldom there might be raccoon or possums. Moles, I think, lots of spiders, of course. Insects.No reptiles or amphibians.

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