Friday, 6 March 2009

What inner representation does an elephant need to draw an elephant?


I came across this video of an elephant painting an elephant that is carrying a flower.

First I saw it as a circus stunt. Various species of (non-human) animals can be trained to perform a lot of really complicated tasks with a step by step method. They will produce the arbitrary behavior that was reinforced, seeming to be very creative or understanding the unity of the series of actions, but actually not doing more than reproducing an arbitrary sequence of movements they learned to do one after the other to get some nice food.

Here it seems that the elephant is not just reproducing a mechanic behavior he was trained to reproduce.

It seems quite reasonable to suppose that he was trained to draw that picture of the elephant, he did not make the design up by himself. I don't have information about how he was trained. But I think this does not prevent us from asking the question: did he, as the result of his training, get an inner representation of the picture he has to draw as a picture? My answer is: yes.

If I myself draw a flower or an elephant on a paper, I will usually not make a creative design. I will use a stereotyped representation of a flower that I will actualize on that paper. I will make a constant forth-and back movement between my inner representation and the picture that I see on the paper. In my head, there isn't a totally defined picture, and the result will not look exactly the same each time I draw my flower: I will interact with the image as I see it appearing on the paper. Leeuwen, Verstijnen and Hekkert (1999) cited by Andy Clark describes this process of sketching, evaluating, re-sketching, re-evaluating all through a drawing process.

It seems to me that the elephant on the recording is doing that to a certain extent.

The evidence is that at the end of the elephant-drawing process, before he begins the flower, he comes back to correct some lines that he did not do strong enough at the beginning. This suggests that he has an overall view of the picture, that he is comparing the result of his drawing action with an inner representation of how it should look like. He is coming closer and closer to that during the painting process, like a human would: first doing the main lines, then at the end coming back to correct the lines that he judged not to be good enough.

Even if most of his actions are a reproduction of the actions he was taught, he is also using an inner representation of how the image should look like and compares it with the result. I think he could not correct the lines if he did not have that. As he is using paint, the thin and thick lines come randomly, so he could not learn before hand where the thin lines to correct will be. So I argue that he did not just learn the actions: he learned how the image should look like.

This seems quite remarkable. I think this supposes cognitive abilities that we usually don't connect with non-human animals.

For a human mind, it would be much less costly to memorize this image as being the representation of an elephant. From this video there is no evidence if the elephant sees the picture as being, symbolizing 'an elephant' or not. I would love to know. Some experiments and neuroimagery are needed here!


Andy CLARK: Reasons, Robots and the Extended Mind (Rationality for the New Millenium), in: MIND AND LANGUAGE 16:2: 2001 p.121-145



  1. I like the term "non-human animal" which you're using up there somewhere in your post.


    Greetings from Monsieur Beep, a human animal.

    R O F L O L - my belly's aching for laughter. So cute!

  2. Hum... Could you translate that ROFLOL? :-) I see it from time to time.

    Well, I do like the term "non-human animal". It comes from biology and ethology, the study of behavior. it is I think a healthy point of view. They study the Man as any other species of animals, so the distinction has to be made, because if I just wrote "animals", we would be included... :-)

  3. See for example (in German):

    There you'll find:

    roflol = rolling on the floor laughing out loudly

    There are many abbreviations used in the net ...

  4. What inner representation does an elephant need to draw an elephant?

    Only an elephant knows ... I guess he has some inner representation, but I doubt a selfreflexive one.

    The magical number is 10 Billions (10 with exponent 10) ...

    I mean, it seems to be a general rule, that anytime in evolution when a qualitatively new level of development emerges, the number of "particles" involved has to be in the order of 10 Billions. Of course, some diversity and some complex networking has also to be there additionally.

    In the case of selfreflexive consciousness: The first glimpses of that occur with animals having at least 7 or 8 Billion nerve cells; the human animal (LOL) has about 14 or 15 Billions.

    Another example: In the case of amino acids building up a living cell, about 10 Billion amino acids are needed, otherwise it does not occur.

    There are other examples, therefore this magical number seems to be a general rule ...

    Looking into future: There are now about 6 Billions human animals on earth. Diversity is given, too, and global networking is growing more and more => development of a kind of global brain?

  5. I forgot to mention: Demographers say that earth population will stabilize around 12 Billions in the near future ...

  6. I never heard about this magical number. Does it have a name? Where do you know it from?

  7. To call it a "magical" number was just my invention out of the moment in order to emphasize it ... as far as I know there is no special name for it.

    About 25 years (!) ago I've read the book "The Awakening Earth" by Peter Russell; there it was mentioned together with other basic principles of evolution. A newer version is released with the title "The Global Brain":

    I recommend this book very much, if you are interested in the mechanisms of evolution seen in broader strokes, and in the question where mankind may go in the future. Very interesting and inspiring.

    Really, we are living in a privileged era (may be called Golden Age - a little advertising for Eolake: Seen within the cosmic time scale, evolution is accelerated in a way we can call exploding - and it all happens in OUR lifetime, we are part of it! It amazes me again and again. Really "sexy"!

    Peter Russell is a physicist with deep experience in meditation (same with me, so I feel some deeper resonance with him). Very much grounded as well as visionary at the same time, no esoteric bullshit talk.


    Now, in order to estimate the possible inner representation of an elephant, a basic question might be: How many nerve cells has an elephant in his brain?

    I don't know. At least they have a very good memory, as it is said.

  8. Addendum: I have just reread a bit in this book, and would like to quote a little bit from the chapter 10 "Synergy":

    Synergy does not imply any coercion or restraint, nor is it brought about by deliberate effort. Each individual element of the system works toward its own goals, and the goals themselves may be quite varied. Yet the elements function in ways that are spontaneously mutually supportive. Consequently, there is little, if any, intrinsic conflict.


    An excellent example of a system with high synergy is your own body ...

    Synergy in an organism is the essence of life, and it is intimately related to health. When for some reason synergy drops and the organism as a whole does not receive the full support of its many parts, it becomes ill. When synergy is lost altogether, the organism dies. The individual cell may live on, but the whole, the living organism, no longer exists.

    Likewise in social groups, synergy represents the extent to which the activities of the individual support the group as a whole. Anthropologists studying primitive tribal systems have found that groups high in synergy tend to be low in conflict and aggression, both between individuals and between individuals and the group. This does not mean that such societies are full of "do-gooders" desperately trying to help each other; rather, they are societies in which the social and psychological structures are such that the activity of the individual is naturally in tune with the needs of others and the needs of the group.


    The spearhead of evolution is now self-reflective consciousness. If evolution is indeed to push on to yet higher levels of integration, the most crucial changes will take place in the realm of human consciousness. In effect the evolutionary process has now become internalized within each of us. To see what this means, and how we may evolve inwardly, let us start by looking at how our internal model of ourselves governs our perception, thinking, and action.

    (emphasizing by me)

  9. Very interesting!

    Who are the anthropologists writing about synergy? I must admit I don't remember meeting this term in my readings, I would be interested how it looks like from an anthropological point of view.

  10. Who are the anthropologists writing about synergy?

    I don't know either, I have just quoted ;-) I'm not an anthropologist, but it sounds quite evident for me.

    Synergy, or synergetics - understanding networks, developping all kinds of it ... I think this is a very characteristic main theme of the era we are living in, really starting about 50 or 60 years ago, and since then growing exponentially. One could make easily a big list of according phenomena in mathematics and physics (multiple particle systems, synergetics, cell automats), informatics and computer science (usenet, internet, of course blogging;-), IRC, twitter and so on), biology (selforganization, swarm intelligence), blending of music styles from all over the world, trading and globalization, traveling all over the world, spreading of cultural and spiritual traditions from all over the world, crossbreeding and crosscorrelating of all kinds of scientifique disciplines ... well, I'll stop now, but it could go on and on.

    So, I'm quite sure, this is also a theme in anthropology, but I have not searched for it.

    Do you know already, what the theme of your thesis will be?

  11. We took the video while in Thailand in Oct 2007. We had just paid Fair Trade wages for some purses for resale on our website from the longneck tribe - the women with the rings around their necks - and Liz wanted to visit an elephant camp. When they started setting up easels in the open space, I started recording what turned out to be this amazing video of an elephant painting the image of an elephant. You can hear my “Oh my God” comments as I am utterly amazed. Since then we have done filming with National Geographic for a program to air later this year.

    Please visit the FAQ on our web site to read a lot more information about the reward based training, painting process, and our efforts to support elephant conservation as well as our efforts to provide sustainable income to artist in developing countries.