In 1904, there was a horse named Hans who could add numbers, spell words, recognize faces, and tell time. He would tap out the answers with his hooves. He was a sensation and travelled all over Europe showing off his wonderous skills, intelligence, and gifts. And he put on quite a show.

hans

His owner, Wilhem Von Osten, was a retired teacher and fully believed that he taught Hans to use his brain using sugar and carrots as incentives to learn and get the correct answers. At times it was even witnessed that Hans would give an answer to a question that Wilhelm Von Osten had not even asked. It was as if Hans was reading his owner’s mind!

But not everyone was convinced that Hans was actually thinking or had the ability to read minds.  Many people tested Hans to see if tricks were involved. Most came to the conclusion that there was no trickery – that indeed Hans was educated.

As with all good stories, there must be an antagonist. One psychologist by the name of Oscar Pfungst, a professor at Berlin University, did not want to believe in Hans’s ability to think so he put Hans through many tests.

Test 1: He had about 25 people test Hans without  Wilhelm Von Osten present. Hans answered the questions correctly with each person.

Test 2: What Pfungst observed is that his testers were unintentionally leaning forward, or moving their heads and that might be a cause for the correct answers. So he kept as still as possible and tested Hans himself. Yet Hans was still able to get the correct answer.

Test 3: He began to ask Hans questions standing farther and farther away from him. The farther away he was, the less and less accurate Hans’s answers became. And when Pfungt blindfolded Hans, he could not answer the questions at all.

This lead to Pfungst’s conclusion that Hans was perceptive in that he “read” the non-verbal clues provided to him by his owner and the testers, but he did not possess the ability to think. Perhaps his owner or a tester leaned in slightly or moved an arm or twitched his eyes. Hans picked up on these small movements. Hans was using his perception to watch for the smallest of clues… and it worked.

Although at the time Pfungst ruined Hans’ reputation, it did not take long for the public to welcome Hans back and he and Wilhelm Von Osten continued to travel and perform to enthusiastic crowds.

Yet if we think about what Hans really did – which is to watch the body language, unconscious/subconscious movements, facial expressions, etc. of his trainer and others – to get to the correct answer over and over again – that is pretty astonishing. It does beg the question, how much information do we give away without realizing it? I think that we have all experienced it when someone says to us “Don’t even think about it” or “Don’t look at me like that” and we are stunned because in our minds we did not say or do anything. Are we even aware of and can we be aware of that small gesture or smirk, or eye movement that gave it all away? What are we really telling people and animals every day with our bodies, eyes, movements? Or better yet, what unconscious expectations, beliefs, opinions, assumptions are we showing people everyday through non-verbal communications?

This Mind Trip left you with something to think about. Leave us comments on what you think.