Talking to Squid

Megan McGrath's Resume & Blog

Category: Thoughts

Getting invited to TEDxCambridge (expressing my thankfulness)

Happy Thanksgiving, all. =)

I’ll be blogging about my experiences at the TEDxCambridge conference very soon; I’ve been mocked a bit for saying this, but I’m maintaining that it was the best day of my life. I just really like learning! When I sat down to write, though, I ended up at the beginning, so here’s my journal-like post on applying for my invite to the conference.


On Tuesday afternoons, I sit in the lab and procrastinate. It is a ritual. In the windowless room, time is still. I am alone between the hours of three and five, one wide expanse, during which the refrigerator softly hums, and the parrots, G and W, rifle carefully through their grey feathers with their beaks, or huddle on their perches, one foot raised, dozing. Or they squeal and whistle along with the music I play for us, watching me wide-eyed as I dance, solo, about the tiny room, singing for the three of us. We enjoy our time together.

This week was a particularly bad bout. I had a paper to write but other things felt more important. In an effort to be productive, I had resorted to looking up academic events in Boston on my laptop—my thought process must have been something like, “Well, I am clearly not managing my own education at this school very well. Let’s see what I can learn if I get out of here, then.” In my Googled wanderings, I stumbled unceremoniously across the news that there was a TEDx conference happening at Harvard on Saturday—in four days.

I must have begun muttering to myself wildly. W ground the halves of his black-bone beak together. G cocked his head to one side and chirred. Too excited not to move, I found myself on my feet, pacing, and I offered my hand to G. He stepped up onto it, scaled feet clenched and claws digging into my thumb; I raised him to my face, looked him in the eye. He gently pressed his beak to my nose and waited. It is our favorite gesture, the pose from which we hold our one-sided conversations.

“Wish me luck, bird,” I whispered. “I’ve wanted this for years.”

You may or may not be familiar with the TED organization. If you are not, let me tell you: they do a marvelous thing. The most interesting and innovative people—scientists, policymakers, theoricists, Renaissance men—the planet’s thinkers and doers—are invited to give short lectures to selected audiences. But the lectures are also filmed, and uploaded to a central website, where we normal ones can watch them for free. TED helped me to fall in love with science—with learning itself. I have spent many a lazy morning watching TED lectures, and staring out my window and dreaming of the world I saw. I dreamt of going to one of those conferences and chatting with so many brilliant folks about that world. This may seem like an odd childhood dream to some of you—and it is!—but my fellow nerds, science-lovers, and knowledge-mongers will empathize with this.

So here it was, on the Saturday after this Tuesday. Four days. A TEDx conference in Our Fair City. The theme would be “Thrive”, which was clearly a vague-enough term that a million fascinating things would be talked about. I clicked about the website and found that attendance was by invitation only, but that invitations could be applied for. The application was a set of five essay questions about myself.

I spent an hour pouring my heart into my keyboard. I wrote about my childhood and adulthood; I wrote about asking questions of the universe; I wrote about how I was trying to turn my habit of watching animals into a career. I am twenty-one years old and I am trying to turn myself into a scientist. I am just beginning to learn how to thrive. I suspect it will always have something to do with loving my world, and my universe, and my questions. I expressed my whole self in type as much as I could, while the refigerator hummed in the background and the parrots fluffed their feathers idly and yawned. I sent in my application.

I received my invitation at midnight. I took a break from writing my paper to dance a jig around my room. When my dreams come true, which happens far more often than I deserve, it feels like such amazing extravagance. I’m already lucky enough just to exist without this happiness. I never quite know who to thank.

I got back to work, and waited for Saturday, which, by midnight, was only three days away.

There are more things: Inquiries into animal emotion

Hello, my classmates, on this windy February day! On a completely unrelated and unprofessional note, Radiohead’s surprise new album was released yesterday, which is just peachy.

I know that Dan mentioned the colloquium on animal cognition at BU last Friday, and, like the great and terrible geek that I am, I trekked over to BU the evening before to spend the night, so that I could be there at the very crack of dawn the next day. It was a wonderful meeting of minds, and the first time I have ever been in a room full of professionals who have—perhaps improbably, and gloriously—made a real career doing exactly what I want to do: studying animal intelligence and behavior.

There were a few themes throughout the day. I was going to write about the debates over the usefulness of mirror self-recognition tests to evaluate animals’ levels of self-consciousness, but I think that’s for another blog. One issue that was repeatedly mentioned was one of my favorite topics in animal science: the usage and detriments of careful anthropomorphism.

I remember being in high school and reading whatever I could get my hands on about animals, and being presented again and again with this idea of anthropomorphism—people attributing human qualities to other species—especially where it concerned animal emotion. The way some of those authors treated this fault of anthropomorphism made it seem tantamount to a sort of scientific treason, and I became more and more irritated with them. Researchers who postulated that the animals they were studying might be feeling some sort of emotion were once castigated by their colleagues—it wasn’t a welcome explanation for animal behavior. I felt that this was a deeply flawed, exclusionary way of going about such a psychological pursuit. After all, there is no one debating the fact that humans feel happiness, sorrow, and pain—we are emotional animals, and the evolutionary reasons for having emotions seem evident to me. Emotions—and the empathic sense that reads them in others—allow us to be the social creatures that we are. Emotions are what informs our companions of ourselves, and what informs us of them. And why shouldn’t animals be the same—social animals, at the very least? Maybe not a snake (at least most of the time), who will lie in crevices or on rocks alone for most of its days, with no need to communicate an internal life to anyone (and therefore, perhaps, with no need to have such a life; though a snake would, I think, still feel pain, because pain is useful to protect oneself, and feel fear or something similar, to know and avoid future pain)—maybe not a snake. But a wolf, who bows to her brothers to say, “When I bite you now, I’ll be playing”—she needs a society to live, and to maintain her society she feels playful and plays, and her brothers, seeing her bow, know empathically what she means, and feel playful as well. This seems as clear to me as my own love for my family, or my own sadness.

So for a long time now I have maintained in my own mind that just as the scientific community insisted that we could never prove animal emotion, we will not be able to disprove it either. And over the last few years, I’ve been more and more thrilled when I look into recent popular scientific opinions on animal behavior—it is becoming widely accepted, at this point, that some animals probably feel emotion. And to me, this represents a new intellectual frontier. One of the most fascinating questions I feel I can occupy my time with is, “What is life in this animal’s body and mind?” You can ask this of individual humans, of course—we are nearing seven billion people on Earth, and every one of us, I think it is safe to presume, experiences the world in a different way, and acts differently based on their interpretations. This is despite the fact that their senses are probably quite similar to mine. But what about my cat, who lies in patches of sunlight on the carpet in the afternoon? What is the proprioception of whiskers and retractable claws? What does his vision experience—muted colors, a gray-ish world, benefited, however, by faster processing (when he watches the birds at the feeder, eyes wide and teeth chattering, is he fixating on the minute movements of feathers in air—wingflaps that to me, in my omnivorous primate body, look like nothing more than a blur, because my ancestors never needed them to be anything more)? Forget the individual, for a moment (though I am sure that even individual animals differ, which is another order of infinite complexity); the experience of every species in our world is, must be, vastly different. This is the internal expression of biodiversity on Earth.

This is the cat I'm writing about, by the way. His name is Inigo Montoya (you killed his father, prepare to die, etc., etc.). Also, he's sitting on my lap as I write this.

And so we may follow this train of thought into the idea of animal emotion. I know the particular way that grief feels to me. I know that it stems from a knowledge of loss—I have a consciousness that can be aware of a past reality where I had something or someone that I love, and be simultaneously aware of a present reality where what I love is gone. I know that this knowledge can become an imaginative catastrophe of hating the difference between past and present, and wondering over it, and that it becomes a physical sensation—my throat closes, my eyes tear, I feel exhausted. I know the dimensions of the grief I have felt before, and I know it might be different in the future. But what does a mother elephant feel when it stands over the dead body of her calf for hours, touching it with her trunk and growling? Researchers suppose that she feels something. The ritual of gathering over the dead serves no purpose but a social one. But in that moment does she feel what I may feel when, in some potential, detestable future, my own child dies? Or—like the bodily feeling of having a trunk—does she experience something that I can never know?

I’ll leave this with a story that one of the presenters told us at the colloquium (evidence, he said, that we shouldn’t be afraid, necessarily, to rely on anecdotes as scientific evidence in the study of animal behavior, lest we lose knowledge of occurrences like this):

He was biking near his home one day in Colorado, when he came across the sprawling disheveled body of a dead magpie in the road, killed by a car. Three living magpies were standing around it, so he stopped to see what they were doing. The living magpies flew briefly into the surrounding woods, and returned with pine needles in their beaks. They put them down around the carcass, and stood for a moment more. In unison then, he said, the birds slowly and almost imperceptibly bowed their heads, before they flew away together. The man, whose name is Marc Bekoff (professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder), published an account of his observation, and received correspondences from people around the world saying that they had seen many corvids doing something similar.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Have a good break, everybody!