What the fluff?

I spent some time last week with my niece and nephew in Kerala and whenever they were able to get away from the evil clutches of Dora (the explorer) I observed them playing. It is becoming increasingly difficult to compete with TV when wanting to interact with children. And socially awkward aunt who is also unsurprisingly great with kids (read sarcasm) acknowledges this as a herculean task. The colourful rings of a child-friendly Tower of Hanoi lie forlorn as some informative lady sings ABC on the ‘idiot box’. Yet somehow my 2 year old niece is still being amused by the Malayalam version of peek-a-boo called “Oliche-kande” in the vernacular translating to Hid-found. It requires only two things 1) something to obstruct her view of your face and 2) your face. And as I watched her giggle at what seems like the universal way to amuse most children through time, I was reminded of the ‘What the fluff’ compilations that were doing the rounds on social media recently. It involved pet owners standing in front of their pet, throwing a towel over themselves or their pet and the pet watches in confusion as their master vanishes, probably having rushed and hidden behind a door or a bed. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as we see the pet searching for the owner. The more frantic the search, the better. Our affection for animals doing literally anything in videos circulating on the internet is phenomenon unto itself and will take a longer time to unpack but animal perception and related abilities are crucial to understanding cognition (And makes for a great dinnertime conversation if Dora the explorer is not going on).


What we see here is animals displaying Object Permanence. It is the ability to know that objects exist even if they have disappeared from view. That is why the pets are confused and searching. The owner was just there and ought to be around. Object permanence was first described as a sensorimotor developmental stage in human children starting at 8-12 months, by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. But the progression of the ability is such: at first when an object is first in one place and then in another, the child will search for it in the first location. Next phase, they can look for the object and trace its location if the location changes have happened in plain view but not otherwise [Although processing time for any information is a factor. Most adults are dumbfounded by the roadside tricks and may have lost time and money on shell  games which depends on tracking the motion of cups and a sleight of hand]. Last stage is where they search for objects sequentially in multiple locations.

Many animals including cats, dogs, dolphins, goats, birds of the crow family, monkeys and non-human apes have been tested on their ability to track objects when they are displaced although their ability to trace something when it changes location many times in a short time interval is variable according to species, individual and context. They would require object permanence to know where they stash food, where predators or prey might be if they have detected them among others. Animals may also be able to use their sense of smell or echolocation or social cues to figure out where the object went and prior experience with the location or the set-up may all be confounding factors, or sometimes animals just don’t want to do something, or do something they wouldn’t normally do because of the incentive they receive.  All these could lead to a biased result.

However, over various controlled studies, all slight variations of Piagetian experiments have led to the insights we have about our furry or feathery friends at home and our wild cousins with regards to object permanence. Our common pets, dogs have been domesticated for a while now and are particularly attuned to human non-verbal cues and may use them to follow instruction but thanks to domestication, their dependence on us is higher and they may be less self-sufficient in finding food and keeping track of where things are, making use of their nose and our help for their daily tasks. In fact most pets like toddlers suffer separation anxiety because they have object permanence.

In wild animals, species is important as is context. Where are they from? Are they solitary or social? What are their immediate pressures (food, prey/predator, shelter, mate) that could lead them to develop different types of strategy which may require specific skillsets. Most species have survived in the wild because somehow the strategy they use has been developed and naturally selected for. It is best suited to them in this time and space where they are. They will perish unless they change with changing context. Similar species living in vey different habitats thus can fare differently on such tests and animals that aren’t as closely related for eg- elephants, corvids and apes do similarly well. We cannot really compare different animals on a common, generic scale to conclude on their “intelligence”. [Because that requires defining “intelligence” which is subjective and contextual depending on the species, though we like being anthropocentric and using ourselves as the apex with which to compare everything with, intelligence in humans too is complicated and subjective] We can however use them to learn how such skills evolved and whether things like brain to body size have anything to do with it.

This also raises interesting questions like how animals might perceive sudden versus slow death of a known individual. Are we ignoring similar phenomena in the animals that aren’t considered stereotypically ‘cute’ because their responses are not as obvious as the raised eyebrows and crazy neck movements that remind us of ourselves?

Our brain is a beautiful organ but a lot of our actions are based on sensory cues, prior experience and context, processing all of which might take longer than necessary to win against those deceiving us, including our own brain. So watching our precious pets not throw in the towel after we have disappeared behind one is heartening and enlightening at the same time.

References and bonus links:

  1. Do dogs understand object permanence?
  2. Where’s the cookie? The ability of monkeys to track object transpositions doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-018-1195-x
  3. What Do Dogs know about Hidden Objects?                                  doi:  1016/j.beproc.2009.03.018
  4. A really simple summary and critique of Piaget’s theory on object permanence
  5. Dogs- what the fluff?
  6. Cats- What the fluff?
  7. The actual towers of Hanoi game

On the communication of science

I just attended a Think Inc. organized talk with Brian Greene last night. It was an event I was excited about because the other event I looked forward to- an evening with Richard Dawkins got cancelled due to his poor health. But last evening was my first experience with one of the big-wigs of science that I grew up watching . No, I cannot claim to be an expert in physics but my earliest and fondest memory is of engaging in discussions about physics, science and life with my father and sister while watching Brian Greene chronicling the events leading to what we know about the observable universe and theoretically probable but currently inobservable parallel worlds. Learning of gravity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory– terms which we all claim to know but probably don’t really know. This, during a time when I was quickly getting disinterested and disappointed in my physics experience in high school. Few things truly create impressions on us, but the feeling that you finally UNDERSTAND an aspect of the universe (or multiverse) is one of them.

When I was young- reading Jane Goodall, watching Attenborough and Brian Greene, I was convinced that I wanted to ultimately be a science journalist- a wish I had until my first year of undergrad. When I finally started a blog, I was sure I could use it as a diary of my journey through academia- science, people, research etc. It didn’t happen. Not that I had nothing to say about science- I do, it is a very important part of my being. However I never seemed to find the right words or a moment where I could be sure I was right or an authority.  Moreover there seemed to be a depressing number of ignorant people- educated but adamant and condescending in their strong beliefs. It is a common phenomenon, scientists getting disheartened by society when they look beyond collegiate environments. Helplessly watching as sensationalised drivel is passed as science and lapped up by the masses.

Science communication was an important part of the discussion last evening. Brian Greene was apparently warned against taking the ‘fantastic’ ideas of string theory to the lay person back in the day. The main argument being that ‘it wasn’t complete’ and the science community might have been wrong about its details. But the single most inspiring thing I heard is a fact I know and love about science. A lesson that has been reiterated because I am taking a subject called Communication for research scientists. “It is the story that matters”. The whole idea of science is that one must be ready to be wrong at any time. We can’t then, wait around for the perfect moment when everything will be figured out. Engaging the public is important to raise a new generation of scientifically inclined world citizens.

It occurred to me that I have been doing fieldwork for months now and research related things since before then. And yet, I have been hesitant to discuss the single most important aspect of who I am- a student of science. My data collection is part of the story, the reason why we read and enjoy people like Jane Goodall and Robert Sapolsky. I may or may not become an illustrious biologist with hundreds of papers and thousands of citations but if I can inspire even a few individuals to be more curious about the world around them; to cast aside the cobwebs of ignorance and associated bliss to peer into the fascinating world around us- I will be a happy camper.

So here is my resolution- one I had made on New Year’s but obviously did not follow through. I intend to blog about my research, associated research and things that I’m passionate about. Perhaps at least some of my words will percolate down despite the barrage of information that hits us daily. And I can hope that someone somewhere will experience their moment- when they realise that they UNDERSTOOD some aspect of the world that they never appreciated.

P.S- Dr. Sheldon Cooper decided to insult Brian Greene too.


The Inconvenient Truth

It has been so long since I’ve written anything, I thought the other day but I had in fact been wondering about my ‘block’ for longer.

It’s not like I had nothing to write about. And yet somehow every time I sat down to so much as rant-any semblance of a coherent thought would seem unattainable.

My reason for not writing about the many things I wanted to address could be easily explained away by laziness-one of my many vices, but deep down was the troubling truth. I had been ruminating on the idea of biases for a long while now connecting every little incident in my daily life to it. Ideas we tend to hold dear even in the face of overwhelming evidence against said beloved idea. This fascination with objectivity bordering on obsession meant I even conceived an idea to write about biases as a regular feature addressing Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Religion and Science. Great idea with one crucial flaw.

Skepticism that I like to think of as my strongest personality trait and objectivity and rationale as my strongest wishes would demand that I question every single factoid before forming a thought and this is an arduous process especially in an age where one is overloaded with information, no filters or categorization. This overload is generally combated by the general populace by either shutting it all out completely or resorting to creating their own filters thus subscribing to things where their interests lie and more often than not, confirm their prejudices.

And I have been so caught up in untangling the mess in my head so I could pen my opinion, perhaps the reason I procrastinate is because I’m always afraid I don’t have all pieces to the puzzle and don’t know if I ever shall.

Logically, I know my little blog means nothing in the larger scheme of things but this is about MY own quest for understanding the world and how my perceptions may or may not change.

Every thought I have, I question and doubt. Scrutiny and introspection have rendered me almost helpless and my opinions about seemingly trivial things seem shaky and unreliable. The lack of order seems frustrating. Yet fighting these very individual demons of prejudice is a large part of the process of Science and event life. I guess I just hadn’t realised it would play such a large part of mine.


 This has been an ambitious project from the start-to write about science about my affection for it and why I think everyone must have a soft corner for it too. But I have never mulled over a topic so much as I have with this one- because it might explain how I view the world and how you would view me. It could raise more questions than it answers and is never satisfying which is not something any body would like.

I might never like this particular post as it won’t be perfect- but if I am to ever explain anything about science it is this- Science is an adventure- an epic journey to search for a truth-as objectively as possible without any assumptions and more importantly while knowing all the time that your ‘truth’ can either pave way for another ‘truth’ or completely be toppled by it and this cycle must continue. Science is a process without protocol or too many incentives. SCIENCE IS NOT PERFECT and doesn’t aim to be because it deals with facts and the fact is- NOTHING IS as PERFECT as we WOULD all agree for something to be.

Confused?? Reread!
Confused?? Reread!

It is not only about what you study academically but more importantly how you approach something- curiosity must be satiated with the understanding that it might never be quelled and discussions must be undertaken where knowledge must flow freely-while being aware that a conclusion might not be practical.

This transient nature of science makes everyone squirmish I assure you. And thus our societies come up with appropriate safety nets like superstitions, religion and mythology because it takes lesser time and effort to preach and feel safe following than it does to convince and co-operate in constant chaos.

I am still on my road and I am terrified because I know the journey is treacherous and that I might be tempted to fall into the net but knowing that the net is most likely a farce created to numb our senses-might unnerve me all the more until I am too tired to fight it but until then-Science and I-we play our game and I invite everyone to join in.

True Lies

I have for a long time now been amused by the ‘Liar paradox’. The statement “I am a liar” if true means that I am a liar but if I am a liar- how can my statement be the truth and thus I am NOT a liar. But if I am NOT a liar, why would I lie about BEING a Liar?
Going crazy yet?

The reason I’m going on about lies is because lies are the ultimate truth. Deception is the reason we are alive and kicking, instead of kicking the bucket. Why people lie is an one of the most interesting questions one can try to answer.

Nature has given rise to lying in many organisms:A relatively harmless animal may look like a harmful one to confuse predators or a dangerous and inedible creature might exhibit aposematic colouration.

The most Common example-A poison Dart Frog:220px-Yellow-banded.poison.dart.frog.arp

To me, the funniest thing is what happens in most inter-personal scenarios. Person A blatantly lies to Person B who fibs with equal vehemence to person A. Person A and person B know that they probably needn’t lie and they also know that the other person knows that they are lying but they do it anyway. This is called “being polite” and “socially correct”. These phrases are a great excuse to bull-shit each other and most importantly lie to themselves that they are getting away with it when they are actually not.

Lying takes its most dangerous form when we lie to ourselves and that prevents us from getting off our high horses or comfy couches to do any good that we might have any chance at all of doing. It’s the best buddy of Procrastination.

Lying to save one’s physical life is understandable but the most extreme type of lying is in human beings wherein lying  is done to save one’s social or emotional well-being.

According to animal behaviourists- the amount of lying is controlled in most animals because of the costs the liar has to incur. A male may pretend to be physically bigger  to impress the female but this extra embellishment might mean it has to carry more weight proportional to its body size-which might lead to its doom if fighting another contender. In most social animals, a compulsive liar is physically punished or socially ostracised, reducing instances of lying.

So it makes me wonder,why lying and deception (I still don’t know whether they should be considered different), so necessary yet mostly avoided by the animal kingdom (from the current animal behaviour studies) is not only used in the mundane lives of almost every human being but they don’t seem to be punished for it.

“How are you?” is a simple enough question but knowing people and social structure, hardly anyone can be trusted with an honest answer, so we stick with “I’m fine.” And the ‘honest truth’? My “true story” is just that. A fable made up so that I can live with myself and others. That globose mass in our heads has helped us develop language whose beauty would be lost without our capacity to relive memories. And the age-old form of entertainment of story telling is used at every turn in our lives. Everyone’s got  a minor form of PTSD perhaps. So everyone’s version of the same memory is confabulated to make it interesting, making family dinners crazy.

Funnily enough, it is slowly being realised that even in non-human animals, especially ones who are socially down-trodden are finding ingenious ways to trick the high-and mighty. Blatant bluffing is now being recognised in the animal kingdom. Ask the Rochester Biologists .

Low-ranking Capuchins (we know of their devious streak thanks to Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum) give alarm calls just when the group has discovered a rich source of food. Low-ranking Ververt monkeys conveniently forget to signal danger to the superior males and pray for them to be preyed upon. Antelopes like Topi have males signalling danger so that the females might be discouraged from leaving even though she has shown no interest in mating with the male. (so Typical)

But all is not horrible. In a relatively stable eco-system and social setting , the other group members get used to the liar and act accordingly- similar to us understanding ‘compulsive lying’ as the “nature” of a person”. Juveniles are not considered as reliable signalers.

We too might review our own ‘truths’ and view them from another perspective as we mature and as far as our egos permit. Empathy encourages us to want to believe in a lie which might be someone else’s dishonest truth.

SO, as matters stand, we are all LIARS- of different degrees for different purposes and perhaps that is what stops us from calling each others bluffs out loud all the time. And perhaps this knowledge is what keeps sceptics like me from indulging in secrets with almost anyone. Perhaps I am yet to come to terms with the honest, universal truth of the LIE because I hope that’s a lie too. The Largest Liar’s Paradox ever.