Dolphins and Animal Intelligence

by Patrick Marsolek (10/2015)

In 2014, Maddalena Bearzi, a researcher with the Ocean Conservation Society, and her team were studying a school of bottlenose dolphins near Los Angeles, California. They were working near shore in an area where the dolphins regularly relaxed and fed. One dolphin abruptly headed out toward deeper water and soon the rest of the school turned and followed. Bearzi and her assistant decided to follow them in their boat. The dolphins increased their speed and the researchers matched speed to keep pace. About three miles offshore, the dolphins stopped, forming a ring around a dark object in the water. Bearzi’s assistant then yelled, “Someone’s in the water!” Initially they observed the seemingly lifeless body of a fully clothed blonde haired woman. As they drew closer, the woman feebly turned her head toward them and raised her hand in a weak gesture for help. It turns out the pair arrived just in time to save the girl’s life. Afterwards they discovered she was vacationing from Germany and had tied a suicide note around her neck. How is it that the dolphins knew this girl was dying three miles away from where they were feeding, and why did they care?

Dolphins have cognitive and sensory faculties strikingly similar to our own and may also have faculties alien to us. Many different animals display signs of intelligence that are similar to humans. Crows use logic to solve complex puzzles and elephants have grief rituals. In this example, dolphins seem to display a heightened intuitive sense and empathy for humans. If dolphins not only express empathy for us but act upon those feelings to help us, this should inform our discussions about their intelligence, about the human concept of “intelligence” in general, and how we relate to dolphins and other aware species.

At the same time there’s a meme in global media declaring that “dolphins are dumb” the author Susan Casey has suggested in her book Voices in the Ocean that dolphins might have a collective consciousness with extraordinary empathic abilities. In part because of similar displays of empathy for humans, some New Age circles revere dolphins as spiritual beings with mystical or spiritual powers. In scientific circles, there are many different conflicting opinions, with some claiming dolphins have human-like intelligence and others claim dolphins are no smarter than chickens and crows. 

Scientific interest in dolphins and perhaps many of the popular beliefs in their abilities stemmed from John Lilly’s research and popular writings in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Lilly was one of the first neuroscientists to seriously take a look at the cetaceans, in particular recognizing the size and complexity of the dolphin brain. Through his research he concluded that they have the capacity for language and have very good control of their emotions. He also believed that if we could crack their “dolphinese”, we would be able to communicate with them. His bestselling books, Man and Dolphin and The Mind of the Dolphin captured the imagination of the public. 

Military and scientific communities also became very interested in dolphin research. The US and Soviet Navys both had cetacean programs. In the US, the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NNMP) was training dolphins to sniff out mines, and track enemy divers while trying to find ways to use the dolphins as offensive weapons. At the same time, a group of scientists involved in the SETI program — the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence — became fascinated with Lilly’s work on decoding dolphin language. They believed this research would lead to an ability to communicate with other ET intelligences. For a time members of this group also called themselves “The Order of the Dolphin” and included such greats as Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. Sagan became friends with Lilly, visited him at his laboratory, and tried to convince him to conduct more rigorous research. Lilly however, followed his own path conducting more and more bizarre experiments such as; working with sensory deprivation tanks, living with dolphins in flooded houses, and using hallucinogenic substances on himself and the animals. In the end, Lilly moved away from dolphin research declaring that he wanted to understand his own mind and even larger cosmic entities. 

There is a long history of the mystical significance of these sea creatures that precedes Lilly’s own beliefs. In antiquity, dolphins were linked with the gods. Gemistos Pletho, a fifteenth century Byzantine philosopher, described the dolphin swimming through the sea as the mind of God in the waters. Melville reckoned that if God returned to earth in our lifetime, it would be in the guise of the whale. The Greek historian Plutarch said “… to the dolphin alone, beyond all others, nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship with no advantage.” The ancient Norse and Celts both attributed special healing powers to dolphins. Lilly’s assertions may have caught the public’s imagination because they resonated with archetypal and mythological beliefs humanity has carried about cetaceans from antiquity.

Justin Gregg, a science writer and research associate with the Dolphin Communication Project, suggests that many of Lilly’s beliefs about dolphins are unfounded and should be questioned. Gregg asks: if big brains are the key to intelligence, why do crows and ravens with their bird brains display forms of cognition that rival those of the dolphins and primates? There are countless animals that display astonishingly complex and intelligent behavior including tool use, hunting cooperatively and even showing empathy towards other animals and other species. Gregg’s book Are Dolphins Really Smart? sparked a series of articles declaring dolphins are dumb. In his defense, Gregg claims that he doesn’t believe dolphins are dumb, rather that many other animals are equally smart and we shouldn’t elevate dolphins to a quasi-mystical status.

Scientific research has confirmed that dolphins have prodigious cognitive capacities, self-awareness, complex societies and even cultural traditions. These creatures evolved very differently than land-based mammals, in an environment with very few external dangers and abundant food. Dolphin researcher Lori Marino from Emory University suggests that the great evolutionary leaps in the size of dolphins brains coincided with the development of echolocation and with advancement in social complexity. Both these changes are correlated with communication skills, which have become subtle and complex. Primates and cetaceans arrived at similar social cognitive capabilities while evolving along quite different paths.

Dolphin development is characterized by long life spans, low reproduction rates, small litters, and a gestation period of 12 months. In the womb, the fetus shows a remarkably similarity to humans and primates. At birth a dolphin’s brain is at about 40% of its adult size and, like humans, there’s a long period of growth where the brain matures and individuals learn about their society and culture.  As an adult, their brain/body ratio is second only to humans. One unique quality in dolphins is that the two halves of their brains are independent, with separate blood supplies. When they sleep, they only shut down one half of their brains at a time. And it was Lilly who first discovered that their breathing is conscious; if both halves of their brains go to sleep, such as when they’re anesthetized, they stop breathing and die.

Similar to human brains, researchers have also discovered spindle neurons, also known as Von Economo neurons, in dolphin brains. These neurons have been linked to empathy, grief and intuition in humans. These are also found in elephants, beluga whales, and some primates who display all three of these human traits. Many neuroscientists believe the development of the neocortex is responsible for human intelligence. Dolphins’ neocortices are more convoluted than humans, though less so than elephants.

Unlike humans and other mammals, dolphins also have an extra paralimbic lobe in their brains. Though there’s ongoing debate among researchers how this area of the brain functions, it does seem connected to echolocation and sensory processing as well as emotion and empathy. Sound is clearly more important to dolphins than visual information. The neural area devoted to visual imaging is only about one-tenth that of the human brain, while the area devoted to acoustical imaging is about 10 times that of humans. Dolphin brain stems also transmit information much faster than in humans. Since sound travels four and a half times faster underwater than in air, researchers have suggested more rapid sound processing requires faster brain stem transmission. Sensory experiments also seem to indicate a high integration between the processing of echolocation and visual information. 

Dolphin echolocation is an incredibly refined and complex sensory skill. They have an organ in their forehead that can transmit a focused beam of sound pulses and a receiver in their jaw that can perceive the reflected echoes of these sounds. Blindfolded dolphins were able to locate a three inch steel sphere from over a hundred yards away and are able to differentiate between sheets of aluminum, copper, brass or steel. The burst pulses are very dense and contain a much broader spectrum of frequencies than humans can perceive, facilitating far more complex and integrated communication than human speech. Echolocation  is also used for hunting, feeding, conflict and even communication and courtship. Each dolphin has a unique signature sound that they express, which they use for their whole lives. These “names” are thought to be a sign of language and intelligence. Critics note that they mostly say their own names, and not those of others. Though in some communications with humans they do respond when their names are called to them. 

The cetacean auditory sense is primarily spatial, similar to human eyesight, with great complexity in simultaneous information processing but poor time discrimination and object permanence. For example, they will lose track of an object if it’s hidden behind another object which is moved. Dolphin language consists of very complex sounds perceived as a unit. They can communicate in one sound what would take us a hundred sounds strung together in a sentence. Researchers have taught dolphins to use symbols the way we do, though that research has been limited. Dr. Gregg suggested dolphins might lose interest in learning symbols to communicate with us because it’s so rudimentary that it bores them. Dr. Thad Starner and a team at Georgia Tech have developed a wearable underwater computer called Cetacean hearing and Telemetry or CHAT. Though the complexity of the sounds that this device will be able to “translate” is still very limited, CHAT may be the next step in being able to transmit and receive stored sounds from humans to dolphins in real time. 

In addition to the auditory focus, dolphins are very kinesthetic, often stroking each other with their fins and rubbing against each other. They’re also very sexual, using intercourse almost like a hand-shake, as a way of saying hello to each other. The researcher Denise Hersing described being “buzzed” in her genitals by a friendly dolphin. Dolphins have certainly had sex with uninhibited humans as well as with other species, and is an element of their social complexity. It’s commonly accepted that dolphins have the ability to see into the bodies of other animals with their echolocation. They are very interested in pregnant humans, closely inspecting their abdomens. They also have the ability to sense when one of their own has a tumor or when a human is drowning and has water in their lungs. 


Dolphins are very curious about humans often welcoming them into the “pod”, giving gifts of fish, sharing their pleasure and play and uncannily dashing across miles of ocean to save a dying person. At the same time, they ignore the technology that we bring into the water. Like Dr. Lilly and Dr. Casey, other researchers have been influenced by the cetaceans they were studying. Dr. Paul Spong was a psychologist who became a cetacean researcher. He came to the realization that, “At the same time I was studying them and performing experiments on them, they were studying me and performing experiments on me.” He, like many others who study cetaceans, became a devout advocate for dolphin intelligence and freedom.

Dr. Gregg suggests that we currently measure animals’ intelligence according to how much its behavior is human-like. He acknowledges this is not scientific at all and is totally anthropocentric. Gregg suggests that instead we talk about tangibles, like cognitive traits and visual systems, since these are tangibles that we can quantify. He also suggests that we see these creatures more honestly. Dolphins are not fairy-tale pacifist “hippies” of the ocean; under stress they can be violent. Sharing many abilities that we have, they are also vulnerable to emotional and social stresses such those that arise in captivity. They have attacked humans in these conditions. They also can be highly aggressive in their normal environment with each other and with other species. Of course when we look at this behavior honestly, they remind us more of humans than “lower” animals. One of the problems with equating dolphins to other smaller brained, creatures that display “intelligence” is what we miss seeing how much they are like us. More so than humans, however, they seem to favor empathetic expression over aggression and violence.

Lori Marino has suggested their ability to use echolocation and their complex social relationships are partly why their brains evolved to be so large. She also suggests that since dolphins live their entire lives as part of a pod, essentially transparent to each other with their heightened senses, they live in a kind of group mind or collective consciousness. The author Nish Gunawardena cites First Nations lore which says, “… a group of dolphins could become so permanently entangled as one that when they died the were reborn as a whale. That’s what some whales are – collective dolphin complexes.” The idea of a group or interconnected mind is part of the beliefs of some indigenous cultures. People working with dolphins often express the feeling that there’s a sentience looking back at them through the water. Although western science is good at studying brains and objective measures of intelligence it has no way of truly quantifying the more complex, subjective qualities of mind. It may well be that the fact that cetacean species have such advanced brains they possess human-like qualities like intention, will, empathic sensitivity,  subjective consciousness, and possibly even some non-human qualities that dwarf our own.

As science does continue exploring animal intelligences with non-human lenses, we might truly begin to value the species with other forms of consciousness and other highly developed intelligences. Our scientific understanding of these “non-human” persons might catch up with the experience of those living and working many different species. These animals have a wisdom that we could learn from. As Paul Watson suggested, dolphins are highly intelligent and also living within the bounds of their ecology, unlike humans who are so “intelligent’ that they’re destroying their environment and ecosystem.

Outside of science, people are already treating these animals differently. In New Zealand, over 400 mourners attended the burial of a well know bottlenose dolphin named Moko. India recently declared dolphins and whales as “Non-human persons”, banning the use of dolphins and other cetaceans for public entertainment and forbidding them from being held captive anywhere in India.  Perhaps the western world is beginning to remember what many indigenous peoples have known; that other intelligent species, including crows, elephants and dolphins, have a different wisdom than our own and can teach us something about ourselves and our interconnection to the rest of life on this planet. 

Patrick Marsolek is a writer, dancer, facilitator, clinical hypnotherapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He leads groups and teaches classes in extended human capacities, consciousness exploration, personal development, and compassionate communication.  He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See for more information.