An Interview with Diana Reiss

Dolphins, like humans, great apes, and elephants, have been proven to demonstrate self-awareness.

This was first established by animal cognition expert Diana Reiss through the mirror self-recognition test, where researchers put a mark on the animal where it cannot see it–above a dolphin’s eye, for example–then observed their reaction when in front of a mirror.

Dolphins successfully passed the test. Additionally, they showed a particular interest in looking at their own genitals through the mirror, which they are not able to see in any other way.

Reiss has some fascinating video recordings of this.

Reiss conducted a revolutionary study involving an underwater keyboard with nine keys that were fitted with white symbols.

When the dolphin pressed the key, they would hear a synthesized whistle and receive a reward, such as a ball, a fish, or a rub on the belly.

Not only did the dolphins press the symbols for their preferred items, but they also quickly learned to reproduce the whistles and incorporate them into their conversations with one another.

Reiss is still attempting to decipher what the dolphins are communicating.

Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College for the Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience graduate program, acted as a scientific consultant for the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, as well as being the author of The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives.

Once I arrived at the Upper West Side flat of hers in Manhattan, she was on the phone, trying to organize the retrieval of a large black Newfoundland that was to show up soon and slobbering all over.

After making her apologies for the wait, we took a seat on the comfortable white couches in her living room.

We conversed while her enormous black feline made its way between us, its long tail brushing our faces.

Meehan Crist is the author of this piece.


The Believer posed a question regarding the career of the scientist, inquiring into why they have been attempting to comprehend animal minds, something which would have been dismissed by many scholars in the scientific realm not too long ago.

This was due to the idea that scientists were meant to focus solely on behavior.

Subsequently, they asked what was meant when the scientist stated in their book that “Consciousness should, in principle, be available to scientific examination”.

According to Diana Reiss, it is necessary to come up with a way to examine consciousness and determine if it is distinct from the workings of the brain.

Scientists must try to define it and see if the same can be said of other animals.

If something is true of humans, then it should be possible to investigate if it is true for non-humans too.

The intricacy of consciousness is perplexing as there is no single, accurate definition of it, not even for humans.

DR: I believe this is one of the problems we face. This brings us to the mirror self-recognition test. I have tried employing simple tools, and a mirror is difficult to get simpler.

It is a reflective surface containing potential data, which allows us to observe how different living beings comprehend this information. This is the reason why I like it.

Regardless of whether an organism has a highly visual nature or not–as dolphins do not–it is hard to say that they are more visual than dogs or birds.

Pigeons, cats and many other species possess incredible visual acuity, but still fail to interpret what they see in a mirror correctly. Nonetheless, we are capable of doing so.

BLVR: We can make out a reflection of ourselves in the data we look at. However, it is really hard to comprehend the intelligence of creatures that have such foreign ways of thinking.

DR: Absolutely, I can’t emphasize enough how important this is to me. In truth, I’ve had this on my mind enough to dream about it.

BLVR asked what the dreams were about.

DR once had an incredible dream in which they were in a dolphin pool attempting to comprehend their intelligence.

Oddly enough, it appeared to be the National Aquarium, before they had ever been there. The room was round and unlike any area where they had previously conducted research.

They interacted with one dolphin in particular, with others nearby, and suddenly, an understanding of their communication became crystal clear.

When they woke up, they were left with a feeling that people had been observing from the windows around the pool, and a desire to know if they had seen what had occurred. But the dream ended before they could find out.

I had a dream-like experience with a female dolphin where we used a “timeout” to correct her behavior. I had given her a fish which she didn’t like, and she moved away from me, almost as if she was giving me a timeout.

It is remarkable how meaning develops between humans and other creatures, and we often synchronize our behavior over time so that it becomes familiar to both of us. In my thesis, I wrote about how patterns of behavior can become communicative patterns.

I couldn’t have asked for a better behavior than the “timeout” situation I had with the dolphin. My background was in communication theory and systems, and this experience was a great example of that.

BLVR: Writing for a popular audience as opposed to a scientific one allows you to use anecdotes which you would otherwise not be able to do when submitting a paper.

Does this freedom of expression provide a different kind of satisfaction?

DR noted that, these days, more and more people are becoming aware of the potential of collective anecdotes, and their use in research, especially when studying primates.

He pointed out that a meta-analysis of these anecdotes can sometimes lead to the emergence of trends and patterns, which can provide insight into the behaviors of animals.

He concluded by emphasizing the importance of anecdotes and their ability to give us a clearer idea of what animals are like.

BLVR: It appears that you have an interplay of tension and symbiosis between instinct and trial and error. You spoke of not just watching or performing experiments, but also of taking in the dolphins’ habits.

You simply wished to be in their presence. I’m curious as to what caused you to adopt this approach to study, since it could potentially seem very “unconventional”.

According to DR, the ability to become an excellent scientist is strongly tied to the skill of being a good observer.

This sentiment is shared by many within the scientific community, believing that their observations of the world have the ability to uncover something new and unique.

Diane Fosse is an example of someone who exemplified this concept, as she was able to detect details that others had missed even though they were all looking at the same thing.

For this reason, DR believes that it is important to get out of one’s own way in order to truly become an observant scientist.

BLVR: Right, the researcher looking into the behavior of gorillas in Rwanda.

DR: She described how being in the presence of a gorilla drew her in, and she experienced a similar feeling when with dolphins in their pool. This also happened when she was with Humphrey, the humpback whale.

She observed all the details, and felt like she was part of them. She found herself in an entranced state, unable to even speak when someone like Howard Cosell approached her. She was in a nonverbal mode.

Creative artists often state that they are unable to converse while drawing or painting as this activity does not involve the linguistic part of the brain.

DR: It is a different part of our brain that is functioning when we are in the flow and when we are alone. Our interpretations of others may be wrong, but it is what we have.

Meaning is something that is present in the person that is doing the interpretation, not something that exists out there. This is what is known as communication theory 101.

We can never truly know what is in the mind of someone else or what they mean when they are communicating something to us.

In Konrad Lorenz’s book King Solomon’s Ring: New Light on Animals’ Ways, the author talks about the old myth of King Solomon, who supposedly had a magical ring that allowed him to converse with animals.

Lorenz, a renowned pioneer of ethology, argued that instead of a magical ring, King Solomon may have had the capability of keen observation which enabled him to gain insight into animal behavior.

This type of skill is something that many of us strive to have, particularly the ability to observe without being sidetracked.

BLVR: It is fascinating–the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Santiago RamÓn y Cajal looks through a microscope and manages to recognize details in the tangled neuronal tissue that others may not see.

This is likely due to his past experience, contemplation, and dreaming about it. He notices the dendritic spines and he believes they must carry some sort of significance.

However, when it comes to analyzing animal cognition, there is an additional challenge as scientists feel anxious about assigning human qualities.

The instruments used by scientists are debated when being used with animals.

DR argues that it is much more logical to take an evolutionary point of view when considering the question of animal consciousness.

Donald Griffin’s book on the topic makes the point clearer than DR could, which is that there is a link between the thinking processes of animals and humans.

The same brain components are present in both, just organized differently. DR believes that to suggest that living creatures other than humans are devoid of any kind of thought would be taking a Cartesian approach, which would be akin to religion.

Having seen the behavior of animals, DR finds it difficult to accept that they do not have any kind of conscious thought.

BLVR: Although it is a mystery what the exact texture of the thought might be and even what is it that one is searching for.

DR has been focused on how to investigate animal behavior, and how to be creative as scientists.

He is not solely interested in teaching dolphins, but is instead curious about what can be revealed about their intelligence when given certain opportunities.

He seeks to inspire investigations that will reveal the nature of their world.

I consider the mirror a great analogy for our use of the keyboard. We offer them certain keys, allowing a level of control and choice, but what we interpret from their actions may be mistaken.

Examining similar situations from other species can be enlightening in this regard.

BLVR: What criteria do you use to assess if your interpretations are similar to the thought processes of dolphins?

DR stated that one of the main points that was of utmost importance to him was the possibility of the existence of an alien intelligence that would be unrecognizable by us if it was right in front of us. This was his main concern.

As a result of this, he used to tell his students at Marine World that they were blind and deaf to what the animals were doing and asked them to spend the first week just observing and not taking anything with them.

Afterward, they always came back to him with new insights into the activities of the animals. This was his way of helping them to start seeing and hearing.

It’s been observed through myths and stories throughout history that dolphins appear to be intelligent creatures.

It’s fascinating to consider why this is, despite their physical and evolutionary differences from us. There’s a distinctiveness to them that can be seen in their eyes, a connection when we look at them.

It’s as though they have a consciousness that’s different from that of a fish, and it’s something I’m very interested in exploring.


Have you ever seen a dolphin do something that astounded you so much that it completely altered your perspective on their mentality?

While observing two females I worked with, I noticed something amazing. One had already given birth, and the other named Circe was about to.

I was analyzing their vocal behavior and recording data, when Circe was in labor and unsure of what to do. However, Teri, the other mother, was watching intently with her own calf.

I watched in awe as Teri pushed the father of the calf, who was still in the pool, against the wall beneath me. Teri then directed her head in the direction of Circe and made a complex whistle.

After this, Circe made a beeline for her calf. As Reiss’s book explains, the newborn was struggling and descending to the bottom of the pool. It was then that Circe followed everything Teri had done when her own calf was born.

Newborn dolphins must be pushed up to the surface of the water so they can breathe and not drown. This was an incredible display of communication and intent.

It was one of those moments that elicited a “wow” response. Even though I wasn’t able to interpret Teri’s whistle, I could tell that the animals were trying to say something.

It was clear that the communication was intentional and I felt a sense of awe. I had no idea what the whistle meant, so I quickly began to analyze it with my equipment.

I found that it started with Teri’s personal contact call and then it changed into a long, frequency-modulated sequence that was a single sound. I was perplexed by what it all meant.

Back when I was doing my doctorate, I had the opportunity to spend two years in a research lab in France.

My stay was enabled by a grant from the French government, and I worked with an authority on bioacoustics, which is the study of how animals, even people, make sounds and music.

Are you aware that there are whistle languages in existence?

BLVR replied in the negative, stating they had not done so.

When DR observed the whistle languages, they noticed similar contours in human’s whole sentences.

People are capable of whistling something that sounds similar to what a dolphin would produce [demonstrates with a whistle], and it conveys an entire sentence.

It appears to be more straightforward when done by a bird or a dolphin, but without knowing the level of decoding, it is impossible to decipher the code.

This led DR to recall the whistle language when they witnessed Teri communicate with Circi, prompting DR to search for a way to break the code.

Have specialists in avian behavior started to analyze bird vocalizations on a syllabic level? Has a similar examination been conducted on dolphin vocalizations?

It’s really intriguing to consider that birds have call notes and song. Scientists are aware that they use calls to communicate with each other, but the songs of some birds include those call notes.

This leads to the query of what is occurring here.

Is there any kind of syntax in this arrangement? Could the calls have a purpose within the song, or is it merely that the birds are using the same notes in the birdsong and the significance is in the arrangement?

BLVR: Can you describe what a potential Rosetta Stone for dolphin language might resemble? Is there something that could be used to unlock the meaning of their communications?

DR mentioned that the keyboard was the source of one of his “wow” moments, as the dolphins had quickly began to imitate the noises they heard. He also highlighted the mirror study as another moment of sheer amazement.

He said that it was a feeling like no other, and that it was like a high for a scientist.

What process led you to the realization in the keyboard investigation that rendered a “wow” reaction?

DR asserted that the previous research was focused on training dolphins to comprehend hand gestures and sequences that were referred to as gestural language and were reinforced by fish.

However, DR did not want to incentivize the dolphins with fish, as he thought it could be a hindrance.

Teri and Circe, along with their two calves Pan and Delphi, were the subject of our experiment.

At eleven months old, I had created a keyboard that allowed them to receive an object or a rub on the belly if they pressed a certain key which made a computer-synthesized whistle.

You could think of it as a large-scale vending machine, as we were able to track every action they took. We were aware of what key they pressed, how many times they pressed it, and what they were hoping to get in return.

I was astonished by the vocal skills of the dolphins. At first, it seemed random as they pressed various keys. As I listened closely through headphones, Pan hit the ‘ball’ key and then ‘rub’.

They weren’t just hitting blank keys, and unbelievably I heard a whistle that wasn’t associated with a key – could I be imagining this?

I couldn’t see anything to confirm it, just relying on my ears. It was clear that they were imitating the signal.

We were able to identify where the sound was coming from in the pool, and Pan was not only mimicking the sound after pressing a key but he was also taking a ball to the side, pushing it while whistling and then coming back to the keyboard to select the right whistle and key – in one session!

I was reminded of a child who receives their toy and immediately starts talking to it, almost like a babble. This is what the dolphins were doing as well.

They were simply hitting a key to get what they wanted and then immediately making the sound. It wasn’t a random occurrence, it was in direct response to getting the object.

So why did they do this?

BLVR questioned if they carried on with mimicking the noises?

DR was amazed by the dolphins’ ability to imitate the model sounds with such precision. His design meant that the signals were different but within the parameters for the dolphins to physically imitate them.

All sorts of markers were included, such as flat ends, and the dolphins were able to match the 1.26 second ball whistle exactly, as well as the frequency modulation.

This led him to refer to it as a “Rosetta Stone”, emphasizing what is important to the dolphins and how different they are from us.

BLVR: Therefore, you can comprehend that a whistle’s time length and frequency modulation signifies something, regardless of if you are aware of what it conveys.

Even if you can’t understand it, you are aware of the prominent components of the code.

DR mentioned that when dolphins first imitated a sound, they demonstrated something remarkable called segmentation, which is a similar pattern to what children do when they learn a new word.

Young children, for instance, might try to say nana when they first hear the word banana, and this phenomenon is known as the “recency effect” and can also be seen when people learn lists.

Then they attempt to say the beginning of the word, which is the “primacy effect” and then they can put it all together.

This evidence showed that dolphins are capable of vocally mimetic behavior, even though there had been reports of this before, it was the first time it was observed in an experimental condition.

Rather than using fish as incentives, we were able to observe and measure, in a more methodical manner, what held the interest of the animals and what they were capable of learning by allowing them to use the keyboard and have control over the system.

This gave us more insight into vocal learning than if we had trained them.

BLVR: Could you explain what you meant when you stated that fish would create an impediment?

DR: It has been found through studies in the 1980s that if a child is in a lab setting and is motivated by food, they can be taught to speak certain words through behavioral modification.

For example, if Michael is asked to name an object like a pair of glasses, and is rewarded with a chocolate-chip cookie if he succeeds, he will eventually learn to say “glasses.”

However, this does not necessarily translate into a communicative ability, as the word is only used as a means to an end – to get the cookie.

This is not a realistic representation of how people communicate or learn.


By spending more effort on animals, you will gain more experience. This is a great way to become better acquainted with them.

Working with animals can be a rewarding experience and provide valuable insights into their behavior.

What role did SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, play in supplying the capital for your initial investigation?

When DR first came across the Planetary Society website and saw the funding for “Diana Reiss, dolphin research,” she was surprised. It all began when she had finished obtaining her PhD and was looking for a laboratory to work in.

DR then noticed that the SETI group was in the vicinity. She found that both she and the group had a lot in common, as they were both looking to understand communication signals from intelligent entities.

It was not only DR who had suggested to the SETI group to get involved with research on dolphins; John Lilly, who had worked in the 1960s, had also reached out to them without her or Frank Drake knowing.

Do you happen to be familiar with the Drake equation?

BLVR responded negatively, indicating that they did not agree.

DR: Frank Drake, an astrophysicist from Cornell, is the man behind the Drake equation.

This equation is a mental exercise which tries to calculate the likelihood of the existence of intelligent life in the universe.

It takes into account variables such as the number of suns, solar systems, planets that can sustain life and potential evolution of that life to intelligent beings.

John Lilly was a well-funded figure in the ’60s at the SETI Institute.

Although his reputation was later damaged by his experiments involving giving dolphins acid, he had initially inspired many people with his theory that, due to the presence of large brains, humans were not the only intelligent creatures on Earth.

This idea was so captivating that SETI created the “Order of the Dolphin” in response.

Some suggest that due to their high intelligence, dolphins should no longer be utilized for scientific studies.

I am adamantly against the capturing of dolphins from the wild.

Though the number of dolphins in aquariums in the United States is limited, the majority of them have been bred in captivity, not taken from the wild.

This issue warrants a discussion, but if the decision is to keep them in captivity, then it is imperative that we learn as much as possible about the animals to ensure their well being.

On the other hand, I am deeply troubled by the inhumane treatment of dolphins in other countries, where they are mercilessly slaughtered.

Thus, my primary focus is to protect them in their natural habitats and to ensure that no more animals experience such cruelty.

BLVR: Regarding the yearly dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan, which is highlighted in The Cove, can you tell me how you became a part of creating the documentary?

In 2001, DR encountered Hardy Jones, a filmmaker trying to bring attention to the issue of hunting dolphins in Japan.

Taken aback by the situation, DR decided to become an advocate and use their expertise to draw attention to the issue.

DR noticed that the only people discussing the issue were animal-rights and environmental groups who had no public influence.

DR then realized that scientists and zoo and aquarium professionals could start a movement to bring an end to the dolphin hunts if they spoke out and reached millions of people.

What was the connection between the movement and the movie?

DR spoke at the Marine Mammal Conference in 2005, demonstrating what he believed to be dolphin distress calls in the drive.

That’s when a wealthy individual, who was told to get in contact with DR, approached him and was shown the footage.

Upon viewing the video, the individual said he “couldn’t believe it” which was the start of ACT for Dolphins and the making of The Cove with Louie Psihoyos as the director.

The purpose of this collective was to create a unified voice since the environmental groups weren’t working together.

BLVR: It appears that the research you conduct and the advocacy you partake in are greatly intertwined, because if we had a more thorough comprehension of dolphin cognition, then there would be more powerful evidence for halting the inhumane treatment of them.

The doctor affirmed in the affirmative.

BLVR: As previously mentioned, it is hard to verify anything regarding the character of animal minds because of the requirements of the scientific approach.

You shared a fascinating anecdote in your book about when you decided to take away the “fish” key because one of the dolphins was pressing it continuously.

After you removed it, the dolphin looked around the board and appeared to be asking, “Where is my fish?”

He then went to the base of the tank and got a fish, coming back to the keyboard and hitting an empty key with the fish in his mouth. You noted feeling very discouraged since this creature was trying to contact you, but you could not respond for scientific reasons.

DR expressed complete exasperation.

BLVR: Is it common that the intricacies of scientific research impede progress–

DR: Negate traditional human values?

BLVR: Is it possible that the rules might obstruct the process of exploration in certain circumstances?

In DR’s opinion, the best way to work with animals is to allow them to be the guides in deciding the next steps in the process.

It Could be of Interest to You

The utilization of digital technologies has grown tremendously in recent years, with more and more people relying on computers, smartphones, and the internet for their daily activities.

This dramatic rise can be attributed to the convenience, speed, and efficiency that digital tools provide.

Additionally, digital technologies have opened up a whole new world of possibilities, allowing users to access information, communicate, and shop from the comfort of their own homes.

With the increasing reliance on digital technology, it is important to ensure that the tools are secure and that data is protected.

An image depicting an H-Bomb is displayed here:

It was impossible to obtain driving directions from Johnson, VT, to Elugelab.

The route between Tokyo, Japan, and Elugelab could not be calculated.

Look for something close by, like “pizza.”

No results were found when searching for “pizza” in the vicinity of Elugelab, Enewetak Atoll, RMI.

Ensure that all words are spelled accurately.

Were you referring to Marshall Islands Resort?

It was not possible to obtain directions between the Marshall Islands and Elugelab.

The explosion will emerge from the skyline just about that spot.

Greetings on the USS Estes.

You get the chance to witness one of the most significant events in scientific history from a prime view.

We only have thirty seconds left until the clock strikes zero.

Do you have knowledge about this location and desire for everybody to discover it?

If the atomic reactor is triggered, we will be entering the nuclear age.

It is possible for you to put in a location that you deem to be missing so that everyone can discover it.

Put on protective eyewear or look away.

Wait a full ten seconds after the initial illumination before approaching the outburst.

What location would you like to enter? [A group of around twenty-five neutrons].

It is not possible to incorporate a place into this location.


What is the name of the spot where the water is ruffled by the wind?


What is the name of a certain location? [zero].

Using a different structure, the same meaning of the text can be conveyed by stating that:

By changing the arrangement of words, one can eliminate any plagiarism while preserving the context and the semantic meaning of the text.

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