Welcome back, friends—and a very happy new year! For our first episode of 2023 we’re going big. We’re examining the minds of some of the most massive, majestic megafauna around.
My guest today is Dr. Joshua Plotnik. Josh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Hunter College, and the director of the Comparative Cognition for Conservation Lab. His work focuses on elephants—Asian elephants in particular. Josh studies how these creatures perceive and think, how they solve problems and make decisions. As you’ll hear, Josh and his colleagues are doing this work, not just to better understand elephant cognition, but also to inform elephant conservation.
In this conversation, Josh and I do a healthy bit of Elephants 101. We consider a few of the most widely repeated ideas about elephants—ideas you’ve probably heard, like that they have exceptional memories and that they mourn their dead. We talk about the three different species of elephants and what we can say about the differences between them. We talk about how elephants use their tusks and their ridiculously dexterous trunks. We talk about how elephants communicate and what their social lives are like. We touch on Dumbo (the well-known Disney character) and Happy (an elephant at the Bronx Zoo who recently became the focus of debates about animal personhood). We of course discuss many of Josh’s fascinating findings on elephant cognition—including his findings about mirror self-recognition, consoling behavior, cooperative problem solving, and personality. We also touch on human-elephant conflict, convergent evolution, and the importance of taking the elephant’s perspective.
One of our resolutions for the show this year is to grow, to find ways to reach a bigger audience. You can help us do that, if you like, by recommending us to a friend, leaving us a rating, or maybe even writing a review. (We’re actually really hurting for reviews, folks—we haven’t had a new one in ages, so any help on that front would be most gratefully appreciated.) Another resolution we have is to connect more with you, our audience, and learn more about what you’re interested in. So we’d love to hear from you—you can find us on social media or reach out to as at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
One last bit of housekeeping: applications are now open for the 2023 Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute, or DISI. The institute will be held this summer in St Andrews, Scotland. If you are interested in the kinds of stuff we talk about on the show—mind, cognition, intelligence broadly construed—you should definitely consider applying. More info at: disi.org.
Alright friends, on to my conversation with Josh Plotnik. I think you’ll agree that Josh is quite the genial guide to the elephant mind. And he gives us a ton to think about here. Enjoy!