The Nature World News website recently touted the fact that a new laboratory study suggests that a species of jellyfish has been seen “deliberately” catching fish, this despite the fact that jellyfish don’t have brains or a central nervous system.
According to lead researcher, Robert Courtney, “They’re using their tentacles and nematocyst clusters like experienced fishers use their lines and lures.” He goes on to say that “the nematocyst clusters look like a series of bright pearls, which the jellyfish twitches to attract the attention of its prey, like a series of fishing lures. It’s a very deliberate and selective form of prey capture.”
Interesting, huh? According to Dr. Courtney, the jellyfish deliberately twitches these pearl-like nematocysts not just to attract its prey, but to attract the attention of its prey.
Okay … but how does the jellyfish know that its prey has mental states? It seems to me that in order for a jelly to produce these behaviors for the reasons given it would have to have a fully-developed theory of mind, meaning it would have to have a mind of its own and would also have to be capable of knowing that other organisms have minds similar to its mind in some ways, yet dissimilar in others. Yet Dr. Courtney seems convinced that they’re fishing deliberately.
But here’s a significant fact: we’re also told that the study was done in a laboratory instead of the jellyfish’s natural habitat. That’s because this is a very tiny organism that’s almost invisible in the open sea. So, in order to capture this species for laboratory study, the researchers trapped the jellyfish by submerging high-powered lights in its natural aquatic habitat.
Why? Because they’re attracted to light.
So here we have two variations on the word “attraction.”
1) The jellyfish is attracted to light, and
2) it’s reportedly behaving to attract the attention of its prey.
So why does Dr. Courtney think he’s seeing deliberate behavior in an organism that can’t possibly think about what it’s doing? Why aren’t its behaviors described through—I don’t know—a basic function of physics found in all things, living or non-living, all things on earth, organic and inorganic, a simple process found both in organisms that can think (meaning us and maybe dolphins) and those that can’t (meaning other organisms like jellyfish, plants, bacteria, and inorganic things like tectonic plates and maybe even the ocean itself)?
The truth is simple: the jellyfish is attracted to its prey. If it weren’t it wouldn’t be able to feed itself except by sheer random chance. Fortunately for the jellyfish, it has a built-in fishing lure: its bright nematocyst clusters.
And why do lures work? Because fish are attracted to them.
Could it be that the jellyfish is not acting in a deliberate manner — which, again, would be impossible without a highly-developed brain — but is simply moving toward its prey in what seems to be a deliberate manner because of physical attraction? (“Physical” meaning its behavior is controlled by physics, not sexual desire.)
Dogs on Motorcycles, Dolphins Riding Whales
Meanwhile, in another part of the world, we have a species called the dog. And dogs are known for their infatuation with car rides (or at least most dogs are). Of course, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about that. I mean it’s interesting that dogs love going for car rides, and that most cats hate it. But until recently I’d never heard of a dog who loved motorcycle rides. But in a recent television interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan described how one of his dogs absolutely loves to do just that.
As soon as his dog hears him kick-starting the engine, she comes bursting out of the house, runs straight to the motorcycle, and jumps up between the handlebars onto the gas tank. Then, cradled safely (or perhaps precariously) between her owner’s arms, the duo takes off down the road.
This is all pretty amazing (and some would say dumb on Morgan’s part), but here’s what I think is really amazing: once this dynamic duo reach the freeway, and begin traveling 70 miles an hour, the dog falls asleep and doesn’t wake up until they reach their destination!
Can you imagine? The dog isn’t safe inside a car, with the window rolled down so she can stick her head out. She’s sleeping on top of the gas tank. At 70 mph! Fast asleep!!
And she’s not the only dog who likes to ride a motorcycle!
I think dogs like to ride motorcycles for the same reason they like to go for car rides, chase tennis balls and fly through the air after Frisbees. They like the feelings of momentum and the pleasure of velocity. And on a motorcycle those feelings are intensified. Dogs also like the feeling of togetherness which are also intensified on a motorcycle.
Dogs and Dolphins and Dolphins and Dogs
Another species that seems to thoroughly enjoy feelings of physical momentum, as well as synchronous movement with others, is the bottle-nose dolphin. We’ve all seen videos or still images of dolphins arcing together in unison, either in the open water or while doing tricks at a water park.
In fact, there have been several incidents where dolphins have been seen, off the coast of Hawaii, riding on the backs of humpback whales which is quite similar to the way Jeffrey Dean Morgan describes his dog riding his motorcycle’s gas tank!
Ken Ramirez, a dolphin trainer at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium says, “It is believed that the ‘surfing’ or bow riding [behaviors] that dolphins exhibit in front of boats may have had its genesis in riding in front, or in the wake, of big whales.”
Like many +R trainers, Ramirez believe that the animals they train learn to do all sorts of amazing acrobatic feats through a process called positive reinforcement, and more specifically through sonic “markers,” usually clicks from a clicker that signal a food reward may be coming later. In fact, these trainers believe that all animals—not just dolphins—learn the same way, through a process called operant conditioning.
Do Dogs and Dolphins (and Jellyfish) Learn the Same Way?
All animals—at least those who can learn new behaviors (and jellyfish probably don’t fit that category)—learn the same way. But it’s not through operant conditioning, which only creates a fairly convincing facsimile of how animals really learn, and usually only under very tightly-controlled conditions. In fact it’s well known that behaviors learned via operant conditioning tend to break down whenever strong drives and instincts are involved. 
So how do animals really learn?
According to a model called Natural Dog Training—created by dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan—all behavior and learning are the products of certain properties of physics, among them the same properties that explain how a jellyfish seems to hunt deliberately: through physical attraction to its prey.
Some obvious examples include the kind of almost magnetic attraction most dogs have for other dogs, for their owners, their toys, treats, food dish, etc. When a dog has strong feelings of attraction for something he tends to move toward it in a straight line. But, according Behan’s model, dogs also have feelings of resistance toward other types of things, like going to the vet’s office, or getting a bath. Resistance is literally the polar opposite of attraction. When a dog has strong feelings of resistance he tries to move away from the things that generate those feelings. Meanwhile, when a dog feels a mixture of both attraction and resistance he’ll move in a curvilinear fashion.
Add to this process the idea that when a dog moves toward an object of attraction, doing so creates pleasurable feelings of physical momentum and emotional flow, the same types of feelings we have when we’re humming along on the open highway, or playing golf or tennis, or even just watching a game of football on TV, where we may unconsciously project our emotional centers of gravity onto the wide receiver reaching up to catch a football. We often stretch and strain ourselves while watching the ball’s arc and the receiver’s arms stretching and straining to reach it.
Now think of a Frisbee dog flying through the air to catch a flying disc or a ball-happy dog running full bore after a tennis ball or Kong. That’s pure attraction, which, again, also creates pleasurable feelings of physical momentum and a pure flow of emotion.
So when a puppy learns to sit for a treat, operant conditioning—or a reasonable facsimile thereof—is enough to explain that process for most purposes. The missing piece is that the puppy has to first have a feeling of attraction for the treat and for the person holding it. You can’t get a puppy to sit for a treat unless he’s focused on you and has feelings of physical and emotional attraction for you and the treat.
Attraction + Momentum = Flow
However, things get a bit more complicated when you’re training a dog to herd sheep or run an agility course or run full speed off a diving platform or—is as the case with dolphins—when Naval personnel train them to locate enemy mines underwater.(2)
For the agility course the dog has to have feelings of attraction for moving toward and through the various challenges in the course. The diving dog is motivated by the way his owner builds his attraction to a prey object, like a tug toy: the more attraction the dog has for the object the stronger his desire to intercept it in mid-air, and the better his score in the diving competition. When dolphins are trained to swim into a harbor, then dive deep and search for possible locations of enemy mines, they need to have more motivation than an eventual “reward” from a chum bucket back at the “base.” That reward is the feeling of seeking and finding “prey,” just like it is for dogs.
Resistance enters the picture through the fact that in all three cases the animals are also pushing past feelings of physical resistance, which, again, is the polar opposite of attraction.
Of course dogs and dolphins are predators. Would prey animals have the same feelings?
Yes. It’s just that their “prey” would usually be whatever it is they like to eat. Horses, for instance, don’t chase their “prey,” but they are attracted to things like grass and hay, etc. Yet even prey animals like horses will play games of chase with each other that often involve biting or mock biting the other animal, as if they were predators at heart.
There’s a lot more to the Natural Dog Training model of learning than attraction and resistance or the pleasures of physical momentum and emotional flow. But on the most fundamental level, there is really no difference between the way a jellyfish is attracted to its prey, the way bacteria are attracted to specific substances that sustain life , the way fundamental particles are attracted to one another, and the way dogs are able to learn complex new behaviors like riding on the gas tanks of their owners’ motorcycles or the way dolphins enjoy body- surfing on the backs of humpback whales.
Lee Charles Kelley
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1.) "The Misbehavior of Organisms," Keller and Marian Breland, American Psychologist, 16, 681-684.
3.) Note that in his book Adaptive Behavior and Learning Dr. John Staddon discusses research done on e-coli and salmonella bacteria, organisms that show only two modes of movement—essentially either moving toward something or moving away from it—which are defined as straight-line swimming (moving toward) or tumbling (moving away). The first is found when the bacteria move toward a spot where there’s a high concentration of an “attractant,” and tumbling is found when there’s a decrease in its concentration.