This is part 4 of four pages about whale communication. download this .pdf version.
Recent acoustic studies with bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Scotland and with cachalots In the Canary islands, have shown that both species instigate a dialogue by vocalizing its own signature and the signature of its correspondent. Think of these two signature calls as that animal's own name for itself as well as the name individual receiving the message. It has been conjectured that this identification process allows members of a large pod of constantly vocalizing animals, to carry on multiple dialogues at the same time.
Cachalots are a special case because the species uses the same basic clicking rhythms for social intercourse as they do for echolocation. Echolocation, of course, contains visual and spatial information about the animal’s environment. If similar echolocation clicks also comprise the basis of social communication, one might soberly speculate that sperm whales talk to one another by vocalizing a three-dimensional, X-ray analog of recent events. We have lately been referring to this conjectured communication medium as holosonic projection.
The Case For Beluga Language
Finnish cultural anthropologist Jöns Carlson speculates that belugas may not be talking to one another in a "language" (as humans define that term). They may use sound instead, to externalize and communalize their own emotional state as it relates to the group’s stability. Carlson's idea reflects a common idea used to explain the non-lingual use of human sound-making. Chanting and other forms of spiritual music likewise affects a group’s experience of communal joy. It has been suggested that human beings started playing music, eons ago, so we might feel as good about life on Earth as the birds do.
Certainly, when we sing and dance together, we feel a part of a genuine community, even if temporary. Since community is the essence of every social animal’s survival strategy, a communal emphasis to comprehending beluga sound production makes sense. Jöns Carlson takes it a poetic step further, declaring that it is impossible for a human to imagine the mental state that must accompany cetaceans dancing through life in three dimensions. In his own attempt to imagine it, e Carlson concludes that vocalizing belugas may be like Chinese dancers who wave banners to accentuate their own vitality.
Buddhist Vipassana meditation teaches its aspirants to perceive thoughts and words as harmonic vibration. Aspirants learn to disregard their actual thoughts, and begin to perceive brain operations as waves triggered by electrical impulse. Bypassing content, they open to the possibility of tuning our minds to the rhythms of the body. Meditators promote this consciousness expansion as a basis of healing and enlightenment.
Since beluga whales vocalize in a sonic spectrum ten or twelve times as wide as a humans and with commensurately refined sensitivity, the opportunities for reflecting upon vibration as a source of healing and attunement may also be that much more advanced. Add in the perceptual realm of echolocation, and it becomes obvious that cetaceans are acutely sensitive to high frequency vibration in ways human beings can not even imagine. Nor can one disallow the possibility that a communication based on 10 to 12 times the frequency range, could conceivably transmit 10 to 12 times the content during the same amount of time.
Therapist Patricia Saint John conjectures that dolphin sound-making positively affects the introverted behavior of autistic children. Seeking an explanation for the phenomenon, she has hypothesized that the dolphins focus a beam of infrasonic sound (below the lowest note humans hear) which resonates a brain otherwise crippled to external stimulus. It’s as if bottlenose dolphin’s make a gift of the same alpha waves attained through Vipassana meditation.
And the Proof?
Let's be clear. There is no way, at least yet, to "prove" that beluga calls express mental health and/or group harmony. The problem of proof, however, offers its own interesting corollary. At a time when pro-active language research with wild animals is a brand new field within the behavioral sciences, the parameters of whale sound-making that biologists seem willing (or capable) to test, are the parameters that human beings already understand about human communication. Otherwise, there can be no basis for measurement. And traditional biology operates by measuring. Or stated another way, any attempt to study cetacean communication insists that researchers open themselves to non-traditional ideas about "animals", some of which seem like fertile ground for science fiction. The philosophical implications clearly impede the science.
In my book The Charged Border I wrote this about my first experience listening to beluga whales vocalize:
Belugas were called sea canaries by 19th century whalers for the way they chirp and chortle among their own kind. Many beluga calls are audible to a human ear. They are also among the few cetacean species to naturally vocalize in air. Listening to them vocalize to one another at Lancaster Sound in the Canadian High Arctic, the discourse reminded me of a raucous party heard through the walls of an apartment building. I intuited that the revelers were indeed talking coherently to one another, although individual words could not be discerned.
The implications of a whale language are profound. Demonstrating that language is not a unique talent of the human intellect, is akin to Copernicus showing that the universe did not revolve around the Earth. How tragic that we have finally found ET, alive and well and living in the Arctic, and the main thing our species knows to do with this intelligent being is kill it for sport and occasionally dice a bit of its blubber into cubes for snacking. The government’s SETI project spends millions of dollars searching space, while our own project often scrounges for used computer parts.
The Beluga Game
Game Theory seems a promising methodology for engaging wild whales for language research. Consider a computer game that relies on well-established ideas of audio sampling, digital signal processing and game theory. The game is based on the belugas’ own calls, modulating them in some logical fashion, and then regenerating the altered calls back into the water in as close to real time as possible. Based on the whales vocalizations, the output is re-shaped with the primary objective of entertaining these same whales.
Being a game, the sounds must not only engage the whales curiosity, but offer clear hints just how their vocal and spatial input actually controls the output. Once they learn this, we could quickly up the ante, and give the whales full control over the modulation process itself. Recent advances in audio software makes the idea of this game not only plausible, but quite irresistible. Nonetheless, to succeed will take great patience and humility, and a willingness to listen closely to the responses of the Other.
Choosing the initial vocal attributes that control modulation lies at the heart of this process. All of us involved agree that setting the parameters best occurs while working directly with the whales. As the belugas respond or desist, we simply adapt the parameters to the situation. There are, however, a few things we can assume:
1. Since FFT or wavelet graphing techniques will probably let us recognize individual voices, we can focus the game’s response on individuals rather than on calls made by the anonymous group.
2. It seems counterproductive to get too abstract or even artistic with our modulated output. As the output strays from its kernel of whale sound, it loses the potential for interactivity.
3. If we focus on whale sounds that demonstrate a clear beginning and end, the possibility arises that we may not only be devising a sound game, but a word game as well.
4. The specific rules of the game need be logically-based to facilitate a valid scientific analysis. For example, if a whale calls in middle C, then the machine might respond by shifting that call an octave higher. And eventually, a fifth. And beyond that, perhaps an octave and a fifth.
Our modulation toolkit is adapted from filtering techniques used commonly by recording engineers, and includes slap-back echo, pitch shift, time shift, and gating. The two related digital audio filters of shifting pitch without altering time, and time shift without altering pitch present an obvious combination easy to comprehend. I am personally interested in looping algorithms that rely on time and repetition.
A simple example might explain the game better than an abstract description. Beluga whales hear sound roughly from 10 hz up to 150 khz. The human ear functions between roughly 15 hz and 20 khz. What if we let the game respond to every high frequency call by transposing it down to 20 Khz before re-circulating it into the water? Concomitantly, low frequency calls are re-circulated at 60 Hz. The possibility arises that the whales may eventually comprehend that they are dealing with a species possessed of very limited hearing. Regard it as a lesson that naturally communicates other lessons.
Finding a Research Sponsor
There is a lot of conjecture expressed here, but not a lot of answers. The more talent we involve in the discussion concerning the relationships between input and output, whale and human, the better chance we have not to miss some wild and crazy idea that could conceivably engender a breakthrough.
The opposite also holds true. We must never lose sight that these animals are marine mammals, not humans in whale suits. They appear to us joyous, exuberant, and exceedingly vulnerable to any alteration of habitat. If the sound we produce disturbs them, we must be prepared to adapt or even stop it altogether. Unfortunately, the concept of technological hubris doesn't get enough emphasis in these times when every problem seems to have a digital solution ready to download next week.
On a personal note, Interspecies has failed dismally in its fundraising efforts to test these ideas. The main problem seems to be that the foundation world views us as an arts organization, and this work is viewed as science. We don't agree with this assessment since the work is actually an extension of computer audio, and we at Interspecies are computer audio professionals. Nonetheless, our non-profit struggles to make ends meet , with the result that Interspecies.com may never possess the necessary resources to produce a cogent field project. Who will help us to stop falling through the cracks of main stream funding labels? And yet, perhaps our job has always been to provide the philosophical basis for a research that only others will attempt, and only when the stars of behavioral funding finally align. Who can say when?
—Jim Nollman, January 2010
For more information about this project, or to suggest ideas about funding, please contact us by email