Ocean Mind, Part 1 & 2 (Listen)

ocean-mind-tail.jpgLife on earth began in the ocean and then moved onto the land. But one precocious line of mammals returned to the sea. How has water shaped the minds, the bodies, the sensory worlds and the societies of whales? Our guide is Jeff Warren. Jeff is an explorer of consciousness in its various forms. In 2007 he published a book called The Head Trip: Adventures on The Wheel of Consciousness. He's spent the past 2 years thinking about whales and dolphins, visiting researchers in their labs and in their boats around North America and the Caribbean to find out what they're learning about mind, culture and society in the ocean.

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Program Excerpts

Episode 1 - The Fluid Society

Not long ago, in the world of psychology, the subject of human consciousness was taboo. It was seen as an invalid area of scientific investigation - too messy, too subjective. Animal consciousness was included in this - if anything, it was even more controversial, for animal minds were locked inside a black box.

Skeleton of Sperm Whale

Animals were dismissed as automatons, blindly responsive to stimuli, with no inner experience of their own. But things are beginning to change. Over the past 15-20 years the study of human consciousness has become respectable, and, following along behind, is a developing appreciation that animals, too, have minds of their own.

What is it like to be another animal?

Is it possible to enter into the minds of species different from our own - to get a feel for their sensory worlds, a hint into how they organize and make sense of their experience?

Episode 2 - Inside the Whale

I'm interested in flotation tanks because I'm kind of obsessed with an idea called the Umwelt. Umwelt is a German word that means environment, but it also has a specific meaning in the world of consciousness studies.

It was coined back in 1930 by a romantic German biologist named Jacob Von Uexkull. Von Uexkull was fed up with the era's dominant behaviorist view of animals, which considered only how animals acted - their behavior. He was more interested in what animals experienced, in the texture and quality of their felt sensory worlds. In an attempt to address this question, he published a curious monograph called A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men.

The book begins in a meadow, teaming with animal life. To get a glimpse into how these animals may experience the meadow, Von Uexkull writes "we must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows."

As we step into each of these bubbles, von Uexkull goes on, "a new world comes into being." Each "new world" Von Uexkull called an Umwelt, a richly-detailed self-world which corresponds to the unique senses and environments of each animal. In this way, he was able to imaginatively position himself inside the heads - inside the Umwelt bubbles - of different species.

ocean-mind-flotation-tank.jpgThe isolation tank is a kind of Umwelt. It puts you into a unique, sensory bubble that's very different from everyday experience.

You're removed from gravity. You can't see anything, but you can hear all kinds of strange clicks and creaks coming from your body. The slightest sound is amplified. Thoughts drift in unexpected directions.

This episode is about the limits of human knowledge. It's about imagination and empathy - and science - and how we may be able use all of these things to get insights into the fantastic alien world of the great whales.

- Jeff Warren


Guests in the series:

Hal Whitehead
Director of Cetacean Science at Dalhousie University.

Shane Gero

Marine biologist pursuing his PhD at Hal Whitehead's lab at Dalhousie University.

Lance Barrett-Lennard
Senior marine mammal scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium and zoology professor at UBC.

Lori Marino
Senior Lecturer of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University in Atlanta.

Terrence Deacon
Biological anthropologist at University of California Berkeley.

David Rothenberg
Musician, eco-philosopher, and author of Thousand Mile Song.

Chris Clark
Director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University.

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