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What's Going On In That Monkey's (Or Ape's) Mind?


Here in California we worry a lot about the "Monkey Mind." You know, the noisy thoughts that jump and trip and interrupt your meditation.

But what's really going on inside the mind of a monkey?

A bunch of my Facebook friends — cognitive scientists, professors, students of the mind, one and all — were more excited than a barrel of monkeys this week over some videos of monkeys and apes confronted with stage magic that have been making the rounds.

Take exhibit one, for example, here.

The monkey would seem to be gobsmacked, taken aback, or downright surprised by a disappearing card. Now surprise is, as one brilliant philosopher once said, a dead giveaway of implicit epistemic commitments. You're surprised when your expectations are foiled. So if the monkey was surprised, it shows that the monkey had expectations about what was happening, or what was supposed to happen, and that bespeaks a mind, understanding, cognitive powers on overdrive.

That might not strike you as a particularly noteworthy result. But scientists, hyper-vigilant against the dangers of reading too much into the mere behavior of animals, are always cautious when it comes to crossing the behavioral barrier to animal minds.

Actually, the thing about stage magic is that it is never, really, an encounter with violations or breakdowns in the regularities of nature. And this is because there's no such thing as magic. Magic, of the sort we call sleight of hand, is not really magic. It's misdirection. We see what the magician led us to expect to see, or we don't noticed what he, or she, persuaded us to disregard. Getting tricked is a social liability more than it is a perceptual or cognitive one. It is because we are so gifted at understanding others that we are so liable to being misled by them.

Which makes it more, not less, impressive that a monkey or ape might be taken in by a magic trick. It shows, if anything could, that the monkey is sensitive to us and, indeed, sensitive in a way that (very often at least) even our domesticated animal companions are not. (Think of the ol' fake throwing the ball for your dog trick. Do they ever figure that out?)

It was Hakwan Lau, the UCLA cognitive neuroscientist, who got the Facebook thread going. In the thread, he makes it clear that what is at stake for him, when thinking about this sort of evidence, is primate consciousness. To make sense of what we see, it would seem, we need to take monkey experience for granted.

One comment from Lau on Facebook says: "There is something about the reaction of the monkey that suggests she saw the card and the hand of the magician *consciously*. i.e. it feels a bit funny to entertain the thought that such [a confused] reaction can be triggered by 'unconscious perception'."

Some of the smart scientists on Facebook were quick to notice that there's nothing decisive in this video. Maybe the primate was surprised at the disappearing card. But maybe what got it all riled up was a sudden movement, or something in the quality of the would-be magician's action. Maybe the monkey was offended, even though it didn't get the joke. As one person experienced with nonhuman primate behavior mentioned, thank goodness the glass barrier was there.

The next video, posted by a prominent cognitive scientist, is, as he suggested, perhaps more suggestive. The orangutan depicted herein really seems to get it, and then, having gotten it, to delight in it. It's hard to maintain skeptical scientific rigor when you watch this animal respond to what it is shown.

Here's exhibit two.

But who knows? Maybe the animal is taking pleasure in something else — sustained contact with another sentient being, or any old sensation moving its way through its system. There's always room for doubt, isn't there?

Or is there? Scientists will tell you that we need better controls and double blind studies. Maybe magic can be made to be an experimental key to unlock the nonhuman mind.

But consider this: We don't doubt that our human brothers and sisters have thoughts and feelings. I don't doubt that my four-year old daughter gets the joke when I show her a trick and she asks me to repeat it again and again and again. What justifies my confidence? Is that the evidence is so much better in this case than in the animal one?

Or is it, rather, that it never comes to the question of evidence? There is no pane of glass standing between me and her, or you and me. When it comes to our conspecifics, we have torn down the glass barriers, or maybe we never built them; we are less in the business of experimenting on each other than we are engaged with experiencing life together. Maybe that's a clue. Can we ever hope to know the ape if we confine ourselves to watching through a pane of thick glass?

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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