Dolphins Reported Talking Whale in Their Sleep

(Jeffrey L. Rotman/Peter Arnold/Getty Images)

Freud's 'Royal Road to the Unconscious' May Have Surfaced at a Pool in France

Nature's Edge Notebook #15

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

News has come from France that some captive-born dolphins there have been recorded "talking in their sleep" - and talking in Whale, no less, not Dolphinese.

The scientists involved say this would be the first time that dolphins have been recorded mimicking sounds a significant period of time after hearing them.

But there's also the intriguing possibility that these sounds - virtually identical to sounds made by the humpback whale - may, if the dolphins are really asleep and not just resting, be direct expression of something the dolphins are dreaming.

Another possibility, say the scientists, is that dolphins are going over their dolphinarium show routine  in their heads in something like the way an eager student might fall asleep going over tough homework problems.

And as if to entice the scientists' curiosity, just as these reports were emerging from France, reports and pictures surfaced from the waters around Hawaii, on the other side of the globe, that show the same kind of whale - humpbacks - playing a unique, even sensual, lift-and-slide game with the same kind of dolphin - the bottlenose.

Sleep-talking in humans is known to correspond to the contents of dreams.

And dreams, according to psychologist Sigmund Freud, are "the royal road to the unconscious."

Are the recordings of these captive dolphins in France, who during their rest/sleep cycles after midnight are imitating near-perfect humpback whale calls, allowing scientists to eavesdrop on moments of dolphin dream?

And if so, are they thus giving us a glimpse into the unconscious mental workings of the glistening bottlenose dolphin?

These are only two of the the new questions scientists feel they can now ask about these unexpected recordings.

Our previous Nature's Edge Notebook (#14) explored how computers now make it possible for scientists to discern remarkably complex and detailed vocal communications in prairie dogs and dolphins - sounds that are pitched and varied in ways the human ear cannot detect.

Our natural human tendency to hope that such findings will lead to proof that the mental life and consciousness of prairie dogs, or at least of the large-brained dolphins, is just like ours was given a possible reality check in that previous report by the MIT's linguistic philosopher, Noam Chomsky.

In a wide ranging interview with ABC News, Chomsky described human linguistic thought as having a boundless creativity of dynamic imagination that engages in a super-complex way with the world - a quality that, as he explained, he still sees no evidence of in the newly discovered subtleties and variations in prairie dog calls and dolphin whistles and chirps.

But Chomsky made another observation (for which there was no place in that report) about the ancient vexing question: What is the nature of consciousness itself?

It's a problem that is increasingly discussed of late among scientists and philosophers on campuses and in professional journals.

"The current focus on consciousness may be highly misleading," Chomsky told ABC News.

"We haven't a clue what the consciousness of dolphins is like," he said, and suggested that the experts don't do much better in describing what human consciousness is like:

"Can you answer the question, 'What is it like to be human?' " he asked, all but rhetorically.

The next really interesting discoveries about mind, Chomsky suggested, may be found "below" whatever consciousness is.

"Human consciousness is probably just the icing on the cake - just the surface of what's going on," he said.

Chomsky referred to the recent flood of neurological and psychological research that is showing how much of our thought and our motivation for behavior and action goes on at the unconscious level - apparently out of our control.

Enter the talkative bottlenose dolphins of France.

'Dolphins Multilingual! Talk Whale in Their Sleep in France!'

A few days after we published that story about prairie dog research, the news reports about sleep-talking dolphins suddenly emerged from France, producing such engaging headlines in the popular press as this from London's Daily Mail:

"Dolphins are multilingual! Scientists record mammals talking 'Whale' … in their sleep."

The headlines in peer-reviewed scientific journals were a little more sober and circumspect:

"Do dolphins rehearse show-stimuli when at rest? Delayed matching of auditory memory."

Thats the title of a study by five scientists in France (Kremers et al) in the January 29, 2012 issue of Frontiers in Comparative Psychology. (See link below.)

The one-paragraph "abstract" summary (such as is found at the top of most peer-reviewed scientific articles) ends with this intriguing sentence:

"These results open the way for broader views of how animals might rehearse life events while resting or maybe dreaming."

The article itself begins thus:

"Dolphins have the ability to copy sounds from their environment other than those produced by conspecifics, like orangutans or elephants, under captive conditions when mimicries are associated with salient events, such as training or shows…"

Like many scientific discoveries, this one happened by accident. And, as with the discoveries reported in our previous "Nature's Edge Notebook" about the complexity of prairie dog languages, it too was made possible by computers.

In brief, here's what apparently happened in France:

It involves five dolphins, named Peos, Mininos, Cecil, Teha, and Amtan - all born and raised in captivity - who perform regularly at the Planete Sauvage (Wild Planet) Dolphinarium not far from the Atlantic Ocean in western France.

Because so little is known about what dolphins sound like at night during their "rest/sleep periods," researchers, curious to see what they might find, had hung some underwater microphones in the dolphin's tank for a period of nine days and eight nights … and hit the record button.

They picked up some unusual sounds, though they couldn't tell which dolphin or dolphins were making them.

After a complicated elimination process (that was greatly aided by computers) trying to figure out whether these sounds might be mimicked from sounds that the dolphins hear during the day, the scientists zeroed in on a 21-minute show tape of various natural sounds that plays to the Dolphinarium's human audience during the dolphins' performance.

The tape includes several minutes of humpback whale sounds. With the help of computers, the scientists matched those sounds to the new sounds made by the resting or sleeping - and possibly dreaming - dolphin or dolphins.

The researchers, plus a number of other human listeners enlisted in blind-study comparisons, could not distinguish the whale sounds in the show tape from the sleepy dolphin sounds.

This is, apparently, the first known recorded instance of dolphins mimicking sounds a significant period of time after hearing them.

It raises the enticing possibility that they may have been "rehearsing in their sleep," just as humans sometimes do, a difficult or intense activity encountered during the day - possibly in a dream state of some kind, and at the very least, while resting quietly.

The researchers still have a lot of scientific re-checking and re-confirmation to do.

Next, the scientists hope somehow to measure the brain activity of these dolphins during their talkative after-midnight "rest/sleep" periods to try to tell just what sort of "sleep state" the dolphins may be in while making these nighttime utterances, and whether that state has any similarity to REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, during which certain types of dreams are known to occur in humans and some other species.

But scientists are excited by the distinct possibility that they have found yet another way into the mind of the dolphin - and possibly even into their hidden unconscious.

It is in the unconscious, as Chomsky and many other experts now point out, that so much of what we do and who we are seems to go on out of sight and out of our immediate control.

A Thought Experiment for You: Try Introspecting

To get an immediate taste of it yourself, Chomsky suggests you "try introspecting."

"It's very difficult to go two minutes without talking to yourself - nearly impossible," he points out.

"Sentences sort of form themselves from fragments of language that seem to float into your consciousness" in groups and phrases, he says, "suggesting that some verbal thinking is going on at a level way below our consciousness."

Is the same sort of thing happening with the resting or sleeping dolphins - words of some kind that they've heard floating up as midnight "pillow thoughts" or even as dreams?

Why Whale?

And why might those captive-raised dolphins, who had never been to sea and so could never have heard wild whale songs, have picked up on only the whale songs in the 21-minute show tape, and on none of the other sounds in it? (At least they weren't repeating any of the other sounds on the show tape, say the scientists.)

Do the bottlenose dolphins perhaps have a built-in affinity for humpback whale language - recognizing it somehow as the same general sort of sound that any dolphins and whales, wild or captive, might make?

As if by marvelous coincidence, just as this news was emerging from France, the reports and videos coming from Hawaii on the other side of the globe suggested there is indeed a natural affinity between the humpbacks and the bottlenose.

No Explanation But Fun and Play

At two locations hundreds of miles apart, each just off shore from two of Hawaii's main islands,  humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins were seen playing the following game together.

A giant whale would lift a dolphin, draped across its "nose" - actually the front of its mouth - high up out of the water and hold it there, up in the air.

Then the dolphin would slowly slide down the whale's "nose" and back into the water.

Then they would do it all over again, several times - and do so, apparently, just for the fun of it.

At least, scientists haven't come up with any other explanation, and they do report that there appeared to be no tension or stress between the species during any of this behavior.

It's hard not to anthropomorphize this behavior and call it a "game."

But scientists now say that as long as you are aware you are doing it, comparing animal behavior to human behavior may not be necessarily wrong, since animals do clearly have many qualities, mental powers and motivations in common with us, and to dismiss the possibility, at least, of such common traits could be to miss some interesting similarities.

Talking in their sleep - even in foreign languages - may be one of them.

And in any case, this news from a dolphin pool in France gives us another glimpse of the new questions that human scientists, assisted with their own new mega-brains, the modern computers, are now able reasonably to explore as they try to bridge the gap of understanding with other species.


HEAR TWO EXAMPLES of these dolphins in France speaking Whale in their sleep - and to read a jargon-free scientific retelling of the story in "Science Now," a website of the peer-reviewed journal Science.


Try your hand at reading the original peer-reviewed scientific report (it's not all that difficult).


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This is the fifth in a series on animal intelligence - following:

1- Nature's Edge Notebook #11:

      " Hunting With a Most Endangered Hunter - Dateline Botswana" at:     

2- Nature's Edge Notebook # 12:

      "Dogs Use Subway, Cat Takes Bus…" at:

3- Nature's Edge Notebook  #13:

     "Who Needs Words? Crows?  You? Wild Gorillas? Alison Krauss? …" at:

4- Nature's Edge Notebook  #14:

       "How Would a Prairie Dog Describe You? Just Ask One!" at: