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Description: Do you like magic tricks? Thinking back to your childhood (assuming you say one or two magic shows) can you remember the point in your development where your reaction to seeing a magic trick shifted from “Wow that was amazing magic” to “Wow, how did they do that.” At some point we (well almost all of us) figure out that while it is not “real” Magic is still amazing and trying to figure out how the magician led us to believe something that was not true or the way we thought can be very engaging. Have you ever tried that “pretend to throw the ball or toy but don’t” trick with your dog? Most dogs are quite easy to fool. They believe you have thrown the ball and dash around looking for it until you show it then again, in your hand. Or what about the trick repeated countless times in social media videos where a person plays peekaboo with their pet using a large blanket and then tosses the blanket up in the air slightly and “disappears.” We could call these sorts of tricks “playing with animals’ minds” and that IS what a lot of the video producers are doing but we can also say that the videos involve explorations into the animals’ minds. Watch a few of the videos and see if you can tell whether the animals involved have any hypotheses about what happened to their humans. In the series of videos linked above it looks to me like most of the dogs seem to be looking to one side of the door or other for their human while the cats seem more likely to be looking at the blanket piled on the floor as if the human might still be in there. How might researchers use “magic” to explore questions about how animals’ minds work? Think about how that might work, about what sorts of situations you would set up, what types of tricks you might use, and which types of animals might to include in your studies. After you have your magical research thoughts sorted watch the video linked below to see what some researchers have done by way of magic for birds.

Source: Animal magic: The scientists do magic tricks on jays, New Scientist, YouTube.

Date: January 23, 2022

Image by Bev from Pixabay

Article Link:

The research discussed and shown in the video focused in upon reactions in jays to disappearance or to the unexpected or “magical” transformation of a preferred food into a less preferred food or vice versa. We can use such experiments to build a better understanding of how jays understand their world and navigate their way within it. A related area of research involves looking at whether animals develop Theories of Mind as human preschoolers do. Up to 3 to 4 years of age, preschoolers base their predictions about what they AND others will do in a situation on what they themselves (the 3-year-olds) believe to be true. For example, have a 3-year-old watch a puppet show in which a child puppet helps his or her mother put away some groceries and makes a big deal out of putting some chocolate that was purchased (their favorite thing!) into the red cupboard and then they go outside to play. While they are outside the mother puppet makes some cookies and after using some of the prized chocolate, pouts it away in the other, blue, cupboard then she leaves the room. The child puppet returns saying they are going to have some of that yummy chocolate and at that moment the action is stopped and the watching 3-year-old is asked which cupboard the child puppet is going to look in for the chocolate, the red one where the child puppet put it or the blue one where it really IS because the mother puppet put it there. What do you think they say? Well, 3-year-olds tend to go with what they know to be true and say the puppet will look for the chocolate in the blue cupboard where it actually is while 4-year-olds tend to say the child puppet will look in the red cupboard where they put the chocolate before going out to play. In other words, 4-year-olds can properly “read minds” while 3-year-olds cannot. Now, lastly, here is an animal example (a true story). A troop of monkeys live in a large research enclosure at a research university. The troop has a typical dominance hierarchy which means that if a more dominant monkey sees that a monkey that is below them on the dominance hierarchy has a food prize (a banana), the more dominant monkey will rush over and take it away for themselves. Troop life can suck if you are lower down the hierarchy. However, the treats are sometime delivered in a special way. Throughout the habitat that the troop lives in are “treasure boxes” which are locked boxes big enough to hold things like banana treats. All members of the troop know this a regularly check to see if they can open the treasure boxes as they more around their large enclosure. The locks on the boxes are radio controlled so that researchers can unlock a treasure box without being there but while watching via a video camera. The locks make a slight clicking sound when they are unlocked that is only loud enough to be heard by monkeys that are within a meter or so of the box. Do you see what is coming? A juvenile member of the troop that is rather low in the dominance hierarchy is sitting near a box and hears its lock click to open. What does it do? Well, first it looks around carefully. If it is alone, it retrieves the treasure and eats it quickly or climbs high up in a tree with it and then eats it. BUT, if a more dominant troop member is in sight, but far enough away that they did not hear the click the monkey carefully ignores the box, looking away, fiddling with leaves etc. until the other troop member wanders off and then the monkey retrieves the treasure. They use a theory of mind to deceive their treasure foe so they can get the treat for themselves. They are showing the theory of mind ability of a human 4-year-old! If you ant to find out more about animal mind theories or animal magic use have a look at some of the articles in the References/Further Reading list below.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How do animals respond to magic tricks??
  2. What sorts of things can magic trick responses tell us about the minds of the animals we are showing the tricks to?
  3. What is a theory of mind and how do we use ours? How do animals use theirs (or do they even have one)?

References (Read Further):

Garcia-Pelegrin, E., Schnell, A. K., Wilkins, C., & Clayton, N. S. (2021). Exploring the perceptual inabilities of Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) using magic effects. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(24). Link

Schnell, A. K., Loconsole, M., Garcia-Pelegrin, E., Wilkins, C., & Clayton, N. S. (2021). Jays are sensitive to cognitive illusions. Royal Society open science, 8(8), 202358. Link

Garcia-Pelegrin, E., Wilkins, C., & Clayton, N. S. (2021). The Ape That Lived to Tell the Tale. The Evolution of the Art of Storytelling and Its Relationship to Mental Time Travel and Theory of Mind. Frontiers in psychology, 4623. Link

Frith, C., & Frith, U. (2005). Theory of mind. Current biology, 15(17), R644-R645. Link

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?. Cognition, 21(1), 37-46. Link

Wellman, H. M. (2011). Developing a theory of mind. Link

Heyes, C. M. (1998). Theory of mind in nonhuman primates. Behavioral and brain sciences, 21(1), 101-114. Link

Báez-Mendoza, R., & Williams, Z. M. (2020). Monkeys Show Theory of Mind. Cell reports, 30(13), 4319-4320. Link

Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Human Nature and Self Design, 83-96. Link

Browne, D. (2004). Do dolphins know their own minds?. Biology and Philosophy, 19(4), 633-653. Link

Tomonaga, M., & Uwano, Y. (2010). Bottlenose dolphins'(Tursiops truncatus) theory of mind as demonstrated by responses to their trainers’ attentional states. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 23(3). Link

Hill, H. M., Dietrich, S., Cadena, A., Raymond, J., & Cheves, K. (2018). More than a fluke: Lessons learned from a failure to replicate the false belief task in dolphins. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 31. Link