Go fetch! Brainy dog finds toys

Q. Could a dog learn to pick a novel object out of a group of familiar ones– without ever having seen the object or being taught its name before? – R. T. Tin


A. The German border collie Rico, to the amazement of everyone, was able to identify (go and fetch from another room) more than 200 different toys, with surprising accuracy–a "vocabulary" size rivaling that of a three-year-old child. More, Rico was able to "fast map," or apply the process of elimination when confronted with several toys he already knew plus an object he had never seen before. When asked to fetch the new object by its "new" name, Rico could do so most of the time, and often recalled the new word a month later. A doggone brainy dog.

A few caveats: How similar Rico's learning process is to a baby learning a language is still being debated, as is the question of how well he understands the abstract or referential nature of words, says Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom in the journal Science. And Rico's fetching routine is quite narrow compared to the many contexts quickly mastered by a language-learning child. For instance, can Rico follow an instruction not to fetch (touch), as a child would have no trouble doing? Further experiments will help, says Bloom, but "Rico's abilities are clearly fascinating."

Q. Do identical twins or fraternal twins live longer? Both sets come from the same gene pool and are exposed to the same environment, more or less, so any difference would seem puzzling. –M.K. Olsen


A. Puzzling for sure, but going by recent reports, identicals average 82 years longevity, fraternals 80.5. The data come from the World War II Veterans Twins Registry, including some 12,000 IDs and 15,000 frats born between 1917 and 1927, says University of California-Berkeley biologist Malcolm Zaretsky in the Journal of Gerontology. He looked at various environmental factors and found that longevity was greater for identicals who communicated by phone or mail at least once a month; but for fraternals, it didn't seem to matter if they stayed in touch. One factor for the ID twins may be that they tend to exercise more and smoke less, and do this as a tandem.

Social relationships and networks are well-established health and longevity boosters, and somehow the genetic closeness of the IDs makes their special bond more beneficial, so much so in fact that the death of one of them is the one thing sure to nullify the other's longevity boost compared to fraternals.

Based on various studies, longevity has a heritability of only 20-30 percent, meaning social environment/lifestyle are much more important. The take-home message, says Stanford University gerontologist Walter M. Bortz, is that "It ain't the cards you're dealt, it's how you play the hand."

Q. There are "wizards" of deception detection among us, people tough to fool when it comes to lies or evasions. What's their secret? –R. Downer

A. Even those whose job it is to ferret out the truth, e.g., police officers, judges, therapists, perform barely better than raw guessing in studies, reports psychiatrist Raj Persaud in New Scientist magazine. Overall accuracy is around 53 percent, close to flipping a coin.

For the 29 wizards identified out of 14,000 people by Paul Ekman and Maureen O'Sullivan, one key is spotting those fleeting "micro-expressions," lasting 1/5th second or less but tipping off anger, guilt, etc. A surprising fraction of the wizards are women, who seem better at nonverbal communication such as gauging emotions from expressions; and many are from troubled homes where motivation for lie detection was greater.

As a rule, say Bella DePaulo and Wendy Morris in The Detection of Deception in Forensic Contexts, liars don't fidget or blink more, contrary to folklore. But they do appear more nervous, perhaps due to their higher-pitched voices and widened pupils. Liars also tend to withhold information, making it easier for them to get their stories straight, and wind up repeating key words and phrases. One finding, says Persaud, is that people with greater self-awareness are better deceivers. But research on this is scant because, after all, "who would want it known they were being studied because they were wizards at lying?"


Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com, coauthors of Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So- Everyday) Questions, from Pi Press.