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Our Language

Yes, you can be Doctor Dolittle. This chapter provides some ideas on how to talk to one of the animals — your horse — and how to both listen and understand what he is saying back to you.

Consider Alex:

Alex could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different”… He had a vocabulary of over 100 words, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. He could describe a key as a key no matter what its size or color, and could determine how the key was different from others.

Alex was an African Grey parrot.

The Mind of Your Horse

The brains of mammals are very similar, and differ in degree rather than kind.

The human desire to believe that we are the most intelligent species has led to a number of comparisons of brains. Brain size must matter, but our brains are smaller than those of the elephant or whale. Some researchers find pleasure in noting that some parts of our brain are much bigger than the same parts in other animals. For instance, our friend Cowboy Bob reports that “the brain cavity of a horse is filled with a lot more than what we usually think of as the “brain.” Although the space would, in fact, hold a small grapefruit, the cerebral hemisphere — or “thinking” portion of the brain cavity is a lot smaller.”

If horses could talk, though, they might point out that the brain cavity of their skulls is about the size of ours, and that lots of preprocessing happens between the nostrils and the brain, and between the eyes and the brain. If we compare head size of Mr. Horse and Mr. Man, Mr. Horse does just fine.

Smell

Even if words fail us in talking about chemicals, olfactory receptors don’t let us down. In a mammal’s nose, each olfactory neuron possesses a single type of receptor; each receptor responds to several molecules, and each molecule is recognized by several receptors. Scents are discriminated by various combinations of 10 or more receptors. With 350 types of receptors, the number of ways you can produce combinations of 10 is ridiculous. As I’ll show you later in this chapter, a horse can detect about 1,816,285,375,084,304,096,155,409,990,400 different scents. That is about 1,699,868,436,439,970,000,000,000,000,000 more scents than your dog. And it is more than the number of chemical compounds possible. The perfect nose could detect stuff that doesn’t even exist! My old nose doesn’t do so well, but the nasal cavities of Mr. Horse are filled with possibilities.