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Dolphin -- Watercolor by Grandson Chris Bayhi [at 8 yrs old]


An Adventure in Inter-Species Communication


Bobby Matherne


Chapter 8: The Idea

[©1997 by Bobby Matherne]

The broadcast had been going on for an hour when ICN broke for commercials. On one of the monitors Mornay noticed his project members Richard Martin and Jim Todd sitting in the ISC Lab's audience. He thought back to the first meeting with each of them. It was Richard that he had first met with to discuss his dolphin paper.


"How did you get this idea?" Richard asked Mornay. He was full of questions after accepting the invitation to have lunch over the phone. Mornay hinted that he'd discovered how dolphins communicated. As an aerospace engineer and old friend of Mornay's, Richard Martin was accustomed to talking out ideas with him. The lights of the Japanese restaurant in Century City were soft and only scattered groups of late lunchers were left in the room. Mornay had titillated him over the phone, and now Richard was full of questions.

"While driving Ingrid and the kids to Las Vegas I was reading Paul Watzlawick's book How Real Is Real? I was taken aback by what he said about dolphin speech, 'To make them audible to the human ear, these signals would have to be brought down to a frequency within the human range.' Even if we did this, the slow down in time would put the human observers hopelessly behind within seconds, making a conversation impossible. There had to be something intrinsically wrong with this approach."

"Sounds like time for a new paradigm."

"Exactly! But what new paradigm, I didn't know yet. One night as Ingrid and I sat by the side of the Grand Canyon, I explained to her how dolphins see their surroundings by creating pictures from the sounds reflected from them. She's an excellent singer, and, I suppose, that's what inspired her to make the suggestion, 'If dolphins can hear pictures, then maybe they can speak pictures."

"Astounding! Robert, that's the new paradigm! Right?" Richard was excited now. "Yes, yes, . . . dolphins communicate using pictures, pictures created by sounds, both input and output. That solves the slow down problem you mentioned earlier. That opens the possibility of real-time conversations with dolphins if we can learn to speak and hear pictures in the same way they do."

"Right. I had realized that the attempts to slow down wide bandwidth dolphin audio to narrow bandwidth human audio were as foolish as for extra-terrestrial beings to attempt to make sense of our television signals by slowing them down into radio signals. What they would need to recognize is that the nature of television is visual pictures, not sounds, and then to create a device to make television signals intelligible in real time as pictures. Which is what we do every day using a television set."

"Do you know how to build a dolphin television set?"

"Virtual realities, Richard. Ever hear of that?"

"No, I don't think so."

"It's a brand new field. I've been working on equipment to produce virtual realities for several years now.

"Using sophisticated computers we can create a complete environment surrounding a person that has the appearance of reality. With small television sets in front of each eye, we call the gadget, eyephones, we can focus the image on the back of the retina of each eye so that it fills the visual field of the subject. By adding motion sensors to the eyephones, the computer can sense the movement of the subject's head, and rotate the visual field so that, as he moves his head, his visual field stays fixed.

"That creates the illusion of a fixed reality out there, a virtual reality, if you will. The subject becomes convinced that the virtual image is a real environment. Using our equipment, we have created an image of out there inside the subject's head in the same way that their brain creates an image out there of their normal visual field."

"I see. So dolphins communicate in virtual realities directly."

"Yes, just as a human spinning a tale around a campfire might conjure up visual images of times long past, a dolphin telling a story would conjure up images in its dolphin listeners -- but the dolphin images will appear as external visual images, whereas the human images will be internal visual images. With the proper equipment I expect that humans will be able to monitor these external visual dolphin images."

"Inter-species communication!"

"Yes, only from dolphins to humans at first, but I'm working on the human to dolphin direction, too."

"Mind boggling. But, Robert, what evidence do you have that dolphins communicate this way?"

"The first evidence came in the Watzlawick book. He analyzed an episode reported in On Whales and Men by R. B. Robinson that involved fishing ships and killer whales or orcas. The ships were converted Navy corvettes with identical hulls and engines.

The orcas, thousands of them, had come to feast on the fish the ships were catching and were harassing the ships. One ship was equipped with a harpoon gun mounted on its bow and it fired a single harpoon, killing an orca. Immediately after the killing, the orcas began to avoid only the fishing vessel with the harpoon gun and to continue to approach the identical boats without the harpoon gun.

This happened not only in this group of ships, but in an identical group of fishing ships miles away. Watzlawick made a point about the degree of the orca's intellectual capacity as demonstrated by their transmission of the harpoon distinction auditorially. He assumed the description was a verbal description as humans know it.

What I saw in my mind was the orcas transmitting a visual image of the harpooning itself. The other orcas receiving the image would have had no trouble distinguishing the harpoon ships from the fishing ships because they would have just seen, as if on a TV news report, the killing ship and its harpoon in action. Thus no verbal, linear-analytical description is necessary to account for the communication, only a pictorial movie reel, transmitted auditorially, of course."

"Of course," Richard mind went on to consider other implications of Mornay's discovery, "Have dolphin researchers ever suspected the etiology of delphinine communication to be auditory transmission of visual pictures?"

"Good question, Richard. That question sent me scurrying to buy this John Lilly book in Phoenix." Richard looked through the marked-up copy of the book Mornay had driven from the Grand Canyon to Phoenix to buy. "This book contains all of Lilly's published works on dolphins. It has the two books, Man and Dolphin and The Mind of the Dolphin in addition to a lecture and several articles from various journals. There are various hints in it that shed some light on my hypothesis, but they offered little insight to the Lilly researchers who operated out of a different paradigm. Let's go over my notes for my dolphin paper. For example, read the marked passage on page 69,

Of course, he was also using his sonar with the typical 'putt-putting' and 'creaking-door' sounds. These sounds were always directed toward any new object thrust in the pool and were always made during a feeding procedure.

"That is exactly what one would expect if these sounds were to create sound images of the new objects and their food. These are most likely to be hear-see and speak-see sounds. The sounds they emit to bounce off the object we call speak-see and the sounds that reflect back from their environment we call hear-see sounds.

"If we make the further hypothesis that dolphins can mimic hear-see sounds, then we might call these sounds picture-speak sounds. This completes the communication loop. Dolphins would be able, if my hypothesis is true, to relate events from other time-space coordinates to other dolphins in the following way:

"By the way, I use dolphin as a generic term to include all cetaceans such as whales, killer whales, and the several dolphin species. As you and I have discussed in our conversations about Tom Kuhn's work, new paradigms often require new words to express them fully. So I found it necessary to invent two words to overcome the awkwardness and ambiguity of the hyphenated words.

"Phizualize I use to refer to the process of speak-see followed by hear-see. It stands for "phonate to visualize" and is much preferable to the usual "echo-location" so much in use today to describe our limited view of dolphin communication. The problem with the word echo-location is that it evokes images of old-fashioned radar screens, rather than the image of a 3-D virtual reality visual image.

"The other word is spizualize and it refers to picture-speak process. It stands for "speak to visualize" and there is no word currently in use to refer to this process, because I just discovered its existence by my hypothesis.

"Now let's turn to page 239, Richard, and read the marked passage there,

In this previous study we showed that dolphins exchange sounds very politely. When one is talking, the other one keeps quiet. ... We also showed that the two kinds of sonic exchanges do not correspond in time, i.e., they can be talking with whistles and talking with click trains, the whistles and the clicks completely out of phase with one another. They can be using the silence of the whistle exchange with a click exchange and filling the silences of click exchange with a whistle exchange, and thus each are [sic] polite in the same mode. Thus one pair of dolphins talking can sound like two pairs of dolphins talking, one pair exchanging clickings, the other pair exchanging whistles.

"This dual communication mode may represent how each dolphin phizualizes to see the other dolphin and spizualizes to communicate with the other dolphin. Thus the necessity for the politeness comes from the need for each dolphin to take turns talking and seeing. Each dolphin can talk and see its surroundings, but if two dolphins are talking at the same time, the images will superimpose over each other, and the result will be as confusing to them as when two humans talk at the same time.

"Let's read further on page 239,

A right and a left phonation apparatus is demonstrated in the dolphin's nasal passages. Thus a given dolphin can carry on a whistle conversation with his right side and a clicking conversation with his left side and do the two quite independently with the two halves of his brain.

"Since there is a cross-connection of brain functions in the cetacean species as in the human species, we might expect to find that the whistle conversation from the right side originates from the left brain and contains the phizualization channel that allows the dolphin to see his companion and his surroundings.

"The clicking conversation originating from his left side we would expect to originate from the right brain, and it would contain the spizualization channel of communication that permits the dolphin to create a virtual reality around the other dolphin.

"Since each dolphin is creating a virtual reality in turn, there is a need for the taking of turns, since it would be difficult, as well as impolite, to modify someone's picture while they were speaking it.

"Now let's read the marked sentences on pages 250, 251, and 252,

The dolphin receives almost as much information through his ear as we do from our eye. ... The two phonation apparatuses can be linked one to the other to give 'stereophonation.' ...We have found that the dolphin has a third emitter, especially constructed for the production of his ultrasonic beam.

"This indicates to me that the phizualization and spizualization process are both 3-D capable and can thus create virtual reality images surrounding dolphins just as our vision/brain system does for humans.

"On page 253, Lilly gets very close to my virtual reality (VR) hypothesis,

With proper techniques (hypnosis, drugs, etc.) we can program or compute an 'acoustic space' into the 'visual space.'

"But on page 259, he seems to back off the visual model,

...his predominant acoustic life generates acoustic models where ours generates visual ones.

"I would change that to say that the dolphin's acoustic life generates visual models similar to our subjective experience of our visual model. The difference is the dolphin gets the input from his ears that we get from our eyes. With the bandwidth of the acoustic information in dolphins so close to the bandwidth of visual information in humans, the subjectively created experiences in both species can be expected to have similar quality and resolution. In fact, they can see with their ears as well as we can see with our eyes."

"On page 279,

...his big computer (brain) is also more acoustically orientated than ours; very large masses of it are given over to acoustic computations, even as in ours we are given over to visual computations. The sperm whale's re-creations are probably complete. He probably can re-create this spatial distribution of the sounds. He probably can also replay the complex interrelationship between the sound simultaneously in pitch, in space, in loudness.

"Lilly does not speak here directly of re-creating the visual virtual reality by the sperm whale by vocalization, but again he gets very close to doing so."

Richard was assimilating the information, and wanting to comment on Mornay's monologue, but Mornay was answering Richard's question about evidence in the most detailed fashion Richard could have imagined. So he merely listened in awe.

"On page 295,

Rapid automatic computation of the signals coming from the two ears would be computed into constructions and pictures of the scenes around us. We would 'see' our friends, the shape of the bottom, where the waves were, the height of the waves, the presence of fish, and any possible lurking enemies.

"Again Lilly graphically describes the hear-see or phonic visualization process of the cetaceans. By using the word phizualize as a verb to denote the process of creating a visual picture of a dolphin's surroundings by his sending out of sound waves and receiving them back, I can refer directly to that process and develop equipment that mimics it. Humans visualize with their eyes, and dolphins phizualize with their ears.

"For the picture-speak process, by using the word spizualize, a combination of speak and visualize, I can refer directly to dolphins' picture creation process and model it as well. These are two very distinct processes and will require two sets of equipment to create them.

"Spizualize, you remember, means to create virtual realities by speaking. This is an operation dolphins can perform but humans can not. Our construction of virtual reality machines is our attempt to spizualize through the use of machinery. The virtual reality machines will likely make it possible for humans to communicate to cetaceans soon.

"On page 299,

We can imagine a dolphin suit with built-in, three dimensional, sonic and ultrasonic emitters and receivers and with built-in streamlining. We can develop the proper program in ourselves to model the dolphin's well-developed programs.

"With the advent of virtual reality and the high speed computers of the 1990's the realization of Lilly's vision is near. Finally, on page 321, Lilly suggests how dolphins converse using all their acoustic apparatuses,

All of these various acoustic concepts (and many others) in some way or another must be used in the dolphin's construction of his language. When a dolphin wishes to talk about an object at a given distance with another dolphin and wishes to describe how that object moved and at what velocities, he can do it merely by transmitting the proper frequency pattern in his clicks and whistles. In other words, he can converse about moving down from the surface of the sea toward the bottom, he can converse about fish of a given size at given distances, sharks of a given size and all of these other matters, in a frequency-time-intensity domain which we would have to convert into visual images. It seems to me that this can become a sort of Rosetta stone for proceeding on an analysis of 'delphinese'.

"Dolphins live in a world in which they navigate by means of a sophisticated sonar system. What we don't know is the subjective experience of a dolphin's vision. What does a dolphin experience when it receives the bounced-back stereo sound waves from its surroundings?

"Join me in an imaginal view of a dolphin's experience. Living in murky sea water, the dolphin has little use for its visual apparatus, its eyes, except for close-up inspection. Its eye are handy for that purpose, because close-up the sonar signals would be so distorted they would be of little use.

"Other than within a few feet of itself, a dolphin sees, i.e., constructs a 3-D visual world around itself, exactly as a human does, by bouncing waves off its surroundings. A human uses electromagnetic light waves and a dolphin uses ultrasonic sound waves. Both convert the received information into a virtual reality aligned with the external world.

"Thus, we can say that a dolphin sees with its ears. This much was suspected by dolphin researchers, Lilly in particular, as the quotes from his book above show.

"Yes, I'm beginning to see myself now." Richard interjected.

"One key to dolphin speech is to understand that seeing is an input-operation-only for humans, with light coming into the eyes, being processed by the brain, and the brain constructing a 3-D visual world out there with the received information. Human eyes are visual receptacles only.

"The dolphin's ears and phonation apparatuses provide it with both receptacles and transmitters of visual information. Thus, the dolphin can both receive and transmit pictures. This is the core of my hypothesis about dolphin communication.

"But, Robert, is the dolphin's brain so different from the human brain? I thought our brains were very similar to the dolphins."

"Similar, yes, but with significant differences. Let me continue and it will become clear. The early chapters of Lilly's books describe what is known about dolphin speech. The important thing I noticed was the increased bandwidth of dolphin speech over human speech. Did the bandwidth of the dolphin speech and hearing apparatus and its connection into the brain approximate that of the visual apparatus of humans and its connection into the brain?

"What do you mean by bandwidth exactly?"

"Bandwidth is a measure of the amount of information that can be carried by a signal. I determined that the dolphin's auditory signals could carry approximately the same amount of information as the human's visual signals. The next question was: is the portion of the brain in the dolphin devoted to auditory processing similar in size to that in the human for visual processing?.

"And is it?"

"Yes, the pathways and the brain area devoted to auditory processing in dolphins matches that of the visual processing of humans.

"One might say that the dolphin can hear as well as we see, and see with its eyes about as well as we hear. This is because of the reversal in the sizes of the human and the dolphin visual and auditory brain cortices.

"What the dolphins have is a unique visual-output capability using their auditory apparatus, and what we have is a non-visual auditory output. Watzlawick said that interactive communication between humans and dolphins was impossible because of the need to stretch out dolphin speech to reduce its bandwidth so that humans could hear and have a chance of comprehending.

"Not surprisingly, much of the research to date on analyzing dolphin speech has assumed that they communicated auditory information in the same linear, analytical form as humans do, and this assumption has led to many dead-ends.

"I realized that humans can easily handle high bandwidth data, if it is presented in a visual form. The example of television, high bandwidth and radio, low bandwidth, help me to explain that. Using the same assumption of the early dolphin researchers, one would say that TV signals have to be stretched out in time to convert them into radio signals so humans would have a chance to comprehend them. What one really needs is to design a TV receiver to comprehend TV signals, not to convert them into radio signals."

"Lilly's book," Richard said, "seems full of data on the research done to convert 'TV signals into radio signals' and attempts to interpret the resultant radio signals as human speech."

"Exactly, when the researchers tried to teach the dolphins to speak human speech, what they got was the equivalent of a TV set learning to blink on and off with the rhythm of the word 'hello'. The dolphins with their extensive training had learned to mimic the sound 'hello' by creating pictures in a sequence that the researcher interpreted as 'hello' with their human ears and oscilloscope traces. The dolphins probably wondered why the humans didn't see the pictures they were speaking when they formed their mimic of 'hello'."

"Robert, have you any ideas of how dolphin speech may have originated? Seems to me it would be difficult for a mother dolphin to teach its young how to speak pictures."

"Yes, I have. Consider this possible origination of dolphin speech. The baby dolphin is exposed to its mother's voice. It hear-sees the word fish as a fish in front of its beak and then compares the fish word image with the heard-seen image of an actual fish. This is like the human baby whose mother says apple and shows the baby an apple.

"A big difference is the dolphin sees the fish when the mother says fish and eventually learns to say fish and thus to create its own picture of a fish with its word. Thus begins the dolphin's training to hear-see and picture-speak. Just as human babies learn to mimic the sounds in its environment, so do dolphin young. The sounds they mimic create pictures, however, which they and other dolphins can see. We can presume that the visual presentation of a spoken picture is somehow distinguishable from the picture being received from its current environment."

"We humans can focus between two conversations, alternately paying attention to one and then the other speaker though both are talking at the same time. A human can watch Rich Little imitate George Burns and still know it's not George Burns."

"But, surely some perceptual clues must exist to allow dolphins to distinguish a spoken environment from a real one."

"Yes, Richard, and yet a dolphin story-teller may lead its enraptured listeners to tune into the story so much as to completely replace their real surroundings for a time. The dolphin's basic survival instincts, however, would cause some portion of their attention to be alert for the approach of predators or food."

"Robert, does your hypothesis support the concept of the advanced intelligence of dolphins that is in such vogue these days?"

"Paradoxically, my hypothesis gives less credit for native dolphin intelligence than previous researchers have, because of their tendency to anthropomorphize their expectations and hypotheses about dolphin speech. This tendency to interpret the features of another species in terms of our species was pointed out by Lilly often in his writings and he has consistently made conscious efforts to transcend these pitfalls. My hope is to seed new dolphin communication research by my hypothesis and its suggestions for new avenues for research and investigation.

"I saw the first picture of my recent granddaughter through 'dolphin eyes.' The doctor made an ultrasonic scan through the walls of my daughter's midsection, then gave me a photograph of it, a black and white fuzzy image of my unborn granddaughter, similar to what a dolphin might have seen if swimming up to my daughter in a pool.

"If we create ultrasonic transducers with similar operating characteristics as the dolphin's, rig up receivers for the reflected signals, and train a neural network on a computer to create recognizable visual signals via a set of eyephones and a human neural net trainer, we have the possibility to create dolphin-like phizualization that is humanly perceptible. The next step would be to train the neural net on dolphin phonations.

"Once the human can perceive the same things in a tank that dolphins do, then the dolphins will be able to spizualize, or picture-speak, to humans. That will constitute the first instance of trans-species communication.

"And unlike the primitive attempts to teach apes to communicate in sign language, this new dolphin communication will be achieved, not by crude attempts to teach animals to mimic our human communication, but by teaching ourselves to learn to understand the way the animals communicate.

"Such an innovation may bring in its wake the first documentation of the history of the world as it had been recorded and passed down from generation to generation of cetaceans. The new scope of understanding of our sturdy ecology on a sturdy planet will undoubtedly expand the horizons for mankind and species of all kinds."

"Do you think we will ever be able to talk back to the dolphins? We would need to ask them questions."

"Yes, that will be our next project, once we can understand them, we will want to communicate back to the dolphins by spizualization. The creation of virtual reality software is the key to producing such communication, because to picture-speak, one must have a convenient method for creating pictures to be transformed into acoustical signals recognizable by the dolphins.

"The dolphins' intense efforts to learn our crude acoustic speech indicate a willingness to learn that would lubricate the process of teaching them to learn to understand our crude spizualizations until we learn to refine them. With the resulting inter-species cooperation, we can farm and mine the ocean floor in a joint venture with willing dolphins. They can explore the ocean's depths and return detailed pictures to us of their travels. When that day comes, man will have domesticated the wildest animal of all, man himself."

[End of The Idea, Chapter 8. To Read Next Chapter Click Book Jacket at Right:]

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