While watching the first episode of Super Smart Animals on BBC’s iPlayer I was struck by the words of scientist and narrator Liz Bonnin – as she was referring to animals I was also applying her statements to humans.
It made the programme all the more intriguing.
She reveals scientific research which is on the cutting edge in proving the intelligence and problem solving abilities of animals.
In the opening moments she explains that wherever on earth you live, life can be a huge struggle.
She asks how animals deal with the problems they face – then goes on to show how some have physically adapted and evolved and how others have learned to use their brains.
In the waters of Alaska humpback whales use tools and team-work to catch enough feed (about half a ton of fish each) to sustain them on their breeding trip, thousands of miles away.
One whale swims beneath the fish and blows air; this contains the smaller fish by forming an air-bubble ring around the prey. Another male frightens the fish by making a feeding call. The whales then rise together, swallowing a vast amount of fish in their huge jaws.
By working in this way they’re showing that there is whale intelligence; each playing their part in the team and ensuring the wellbeing of the pod. It appears to be recognised by individual whales that they must work together to survive. I wondered how many humans realise this is true for us too.
“Scientists once believed that using tools set humans apart from other animals but we’re not as special as we thought.”
Animals all over the world and in different environments solve problems by using tools, proving them to use their intelligence to provide themselves with food or rewards. Some showed genius in their tasks while humans were unable to compete at the lowest level. Liz poses viewers with a question;
“So how do animals become so good at solving unexpected problems?
It helps to be able to think into the future and to plan ahead”
It seems that intelligent animals can solve problems by visualising an outcome and planning ahead to achieve it. This may mean becoming creative and making several attempts at a problem before it is resolved while learning from things which don’t bring the desired effect or through making mistakes in choices.
“Experiences are formed through this process, providing time to learn”
Tillman the skateboarding dog, shows how ‘free-time and his passion’ are powerful combination.
He also proves two theories; that we should hold onto our child-like enthusiasm for learning new things and to use our passion for the things we enjoy, we can achieve great things!
(As an aside from the programme’s overall content I couldn’t help but notice that Tillman appears to have found balance in his life; he has a social disposition and is spot-on as he regulates his balance on the board.)
Liz goes on to say “having time on your hands to experiment gives animals an opportunity to learn but it takes one more thing to turn experience into knowledge; memory.”
The next part of the programme focuses on homing pigeons and how they learn to navigate their path back to their coop. As they make their journeys without directions, they make many mistakes, using their memory to help until a map becomes clear to them.
“Memory is what turns the opportunities into real know-how”
This can be much the same for people; we stumble our way through life without a guide-book, sometimes using our negative memories to set down rules and boundaries, flying around in circles at times ourselves.
By making our own mental maps of right and wrong turnings, we will eventually reach our goals.
Perhaps as we’ve struggled to survive we’ve allowed ourselves too few opportunities or afforded the time to learn new coping skills like adaptability or compassion for our ‘self’.
Part of the solution to improve our learning is to take time to chill out, try new things which we know we enjoy and gather our thoughts without judgement, while navigating our mistakes of the past.
‘The final ingredient to make us really smart is imagination; something Einstein said was even more important than knowledge. By being creative we can put everything we’ve learnt into practice.’
Problem solving is therefore a mixture of all that has been mentioned above.
10 things to remember in overcoming the struggle with life;
- to plan ahead
- child-like enthusiasm
- to work in collaboration with others
- to overcome the fear of making mistakes
- to learn from past mistakes
- to engage in activities which are enjoyable
- to reward ourselves when we meet our targets
- to experience new things – create opportunities
- to remember (and take power from) positive memories