Unimagined Sensitivities, Part 8
Other animals possess some truly extraordinary information processing abilities.
Posted Jun 27, 2017
Recall dolphin researcher Denise Herzing’s account of a pod her team was familiar with acting strangely at the same time as a dead body was found on her boat – something neither she nor her crew knew at the time but perhaps the cetaceans, in some way, did. (Safina, pp. 363-4) It’s not too far-fetched to consider this report in the same way as we consider the extraordinary information processing abilities of other animals. This includes bats that home in on objects far away in complete darkness, elephants (as we’ve surveyed) that communicate with each other through low frequency underground vibrations, and birds that seasonally migrate vast distances to precise locations.
The late author Guy Murchie trained attention on this subject and identified 32 discrete senses possessed by living creatures that he divided into five major categories. (Murchie, pp. 178-80) One of these he termed the radiation senses, which include sight (i.e., the eyes' sensitivity to visible light) but also a sensitivity to radiation other than visible light, a temperature sense, and a sensitivity to electric current as well as magnetism. Regarding the latter, so many different species have been found to possess an electromagnetic sense that, as one observer suggests, it would be more surprising to discover that human beings have not a shred of this sensitivity than to discover that we do. (Robin Baker, as quoted by Bauer, p. 130) Clearly, though, other animals have it in spades. My suggestion is that, beyond the 5 tried and true senses we humans take for granted, some of the sensory capacities that are more highly developed in other creatures may be intimately connected with health, danger, and emotion generally.
We’ve already seen how elephants react to the death of their fellows – even 90 miles away. (Safina, p. 92) Closer to home, some dogs are able to anticipate when a person is about to suffer a seizure. Whether they do this through their remarkably keen smell, their attentiveness to the individual’s bodily signals, a combination of these or some other way, isn’t yet known. (Grandin and Johnson, p. 288) Other dogs have been able to ‘smell’ cancer in a patient before the medical diagnosis was made. (Weintraub and Micozzi, pp. 115-124) And in one of the most remarkable cases on record, a cat named Oscar who lives in the advanced dementia unit of a nursing home in Providence, Rhode Island, correctly ‘predicted’ the passing of about 50 patients (as of January 2011) by choosing to curl up with them in their final hours. Oscar’s track record is more accurate than the trained professionals who work there. Oscar is not an especially friendly cat, so his lying next to a patient for hours at a time is out of character. But “he doesn’t make too many mistakes,” and his case was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. (Dosa, pp. 328-32)
No one knows how Oscar selects the patients to keep company with. It’s possible he picks up on telltale scents (a chemical released just before death, for example), notices how still certain patients are becoming, reads something into the behavior of the medical staff, or all of the above.
What might be highly relevant here is the close connection between smell and emotion in the mammalian brain. Only two synapses separate the olfactory lobe from the amygdala, a part of the brain critical to the perception of feeling. This is why, in us humans, memories that are tinged with smell carry a greater ‘wallop’ than memories triggered by our other senses. (Watson, pp. 180-81) Marcel Proust provided a lasting illustration of the relationship between smell, memory, and feeling when he made an aroma central to the childhood recollections of his narrator in the novel Au Recherche du Temps Perdu (Reflecting on Times Past). This connection between feelings and smell plays out most poignantly in the experience some people (particularly women) have when they seem to smell the cologne, hair tonic, or aftershave of a departed husband or father. (Moody and Perry, pp. 137-8) Intriguingly, some allegedly haunted locations also feature pungent odors.
Safina, Carl. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015.
Murchie,Guy. The Seven Mysteries of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978.
Bauer, Henry H. Science or Pseudoscience. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Grandin, Temple and Johnson, Catherine. Animals in Translation. New York: Scribner, 2005.
Tyberg A. and Frishman W.H., “Animal Assisted Therapy.” In Weintraub, M.I. and Micozzi, M.S. (eds.), Complementary and Integrative Medicine in Pain Management. New York: Springer, 2008.
Dosa, David M., “A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat.” New England Journal of Medicine 357: 4 (July 26, 2007).
Watson, Lyall. Jacobson's Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Moody, Raymond and Perry, Paul. Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones. New York: Villard Books, 1993.