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Aug 12, 2023

The Thoughtful Giant: Elephant Cognition with Joshua Plotnik (podcast)

This conversation offers a look into how elephants perceive and think, solve problems, and make decisions.

By Templeton Staff

Dr. Joshua Plotnik's work focuses on elephants — Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in particular. Since 2006, he has been actively working with elephants in Thailand. He studies how these creatures perceive and think, how they solve problems and make decisions. At the Comparative Cognition for Conservation Lab, with funding from TWCF, Dr. Plotnik leads a project team investigating elephants' cognitive mechanisms in collective action and anticipatory reasoning. 

Dr. Plotnick says, "I wear two hats. One is the scientist who’s really interested in understanding the evolution of cognition across species. The elephant represents an excellent model for studying the evolution of intelligence and for doing cognitive tasks. Two: The conservationist hat. Asian elephants are an endangered species. If we’re doing all of this work to better understand how they think and how they navigate their natural world, are there applications or implications of that work for trying to conserve them?"

Listen in to this episode of Many Minds to learn about the minds of some of the most massive, majestic megafauna around.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

In this conversation, Josh and I do a healthy bit of 'Elephants 101'. We consider a few of the most widely repeated ideas about elephants — ideas you’ve probably heard, like that they have exceptional memories and that they mourn their dead.

  • We talk about the three different species of elephants and what we can say about the differences between them.
  • We talk about how elephants use their tusks and their ridiculously dexterous trunks.
  • We talk about how elephants communicate and what their social lives are like.
  • We touch on Dumbo (the well-known Disney character) and Happy (an elephant at the Bronx Zoo who recently became the focus of debates about animal personhood).
  • We, of course, discuss many of Josh’s fascinating findings on elephant cognition — including his findings about mirror self-recognition, consoling behavior, cooperative problem solving, and personality.
  • We also touch on human-elephant conflict, convergent evolution, and the importance of taking the elephant’s perspective.

As you’ll hear, Josh and his colleagues are doing this work, not just to better understand elephant cognition, but also to inform elephant conservation.

Play the full episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.


Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.