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SYFY WIRE Science Behind the Fiction

Science Behind the Fiction: Why Game of Thrones' dragons are so cool to Targaryens

By Cassidy Ward
Game of Thrones Season 8

Hey, have you heard? Game of Thrones is back! It seems as though we've been waiting for Season 8 almost as long as the residents of Westeros have been waiting for winter, but the wait is finally over. Sunday saw the broadcast of the season's first episode, "Winterfell," and all manner of things are happening.

**Spoilers for Game of Thrones below**

The season premiere sees many of the familiar elements coming together. Characters who were once in distant locales are now rubbing elbows. Some of our favorites have passed on, suffering violent deaths, others are more than they once were. Namely, Jon Snow.

It's long been common knowledge that Jon Snow knows nothing and, as it turns out, his ignorance extended even to his own true identity. Styled for all the realm as Ned Stark's bastard son, it came as a surprise to many to learn that Jon is, in fact, a Targaryen, son of Rheagar, and rightful heir to the Iron Throne.

This revelation has come with a few unforeseen consequences, a developing relationship with Daenerys (about which we should be uncomfortable, given that she is his aunt, but that's not even the weirdest relationship in the series), and the ability to ride a damn dragon.

This last development is not only cool, it's also important. Not everyone can ride a dragon. They aren't horses, they're basically winged, fire-breathing death sharks. You don't just saddle one up for a jaunt around the yard.

Plenty of characters have found themselves, throughout the course of the series, at the wrong end of Dany's scaly children. There was even a moment in Season 7 when it looked as if Jon might become the latest flash-fried dragon snack.

Game of Thrones - Jon Snow meets Drogon - Daenerys reunites with Jorah

Behind the terror, you can see Jon thinking, "If I'm going to die right now, I'm at least going to boop him first."

The bond Dany has with her dragons is natural; they've known her from birth, grown with her, bonded. That they seemingly afford Jon similar regard says some things not just about him, but about them as well. They know he is someone to be regarded with respect, in the same way they regard their surrogate mother.

Maybe they can sense his Targaryen blood, or maybe it's the growing bond between him and Dany. Whatever the cause, the two remaining dragons clearly intuit the difference between Jon and Daenerys, and everyone else. But what's really going on there?


It's commonly accepted that animals, specifically domesticated pets, have an internal life filled with emotions and intimate thoughts. Some people even swear their pets are capable of accurately judging character. Maybe they keep their distance from a new acquaintance, only for you later to discover that person was up to no good. But is there any real evidence to suggest animals are capable of this sort of behavior?

Dr. John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol Veterinary School thinks not. In a conversation with National Geographic, he dispels some of the common myths surrounding domesticated animals. When asked about an animal's ability to feel certain emotions or engage in planning, Bradshaw stated that what we interpret as complex cognition is likely something much simpler.

He suggests that dogs are capable of reading human body language and behaving in a way that benefits them, specifically if they've done something wrong. "People do interpret these behaviors as if they are intentional. The question is, what kinds of emotions do they feel? Alexandra Horowitz in New York showed that the guilty look is actually a sign of the dog's very acute ability to read human body language," Bradshaw said.

There is, perhaps, a distinction to be made here between whether an animal in the home is actually feeling guilt as a result of their actions or simply reacting to our behavior in light of those actions. Considering the long-running relationship between humans and dogs, it stands to reason that they'd be quite good at measuring our body language and behaving in a way that placates us.

Bradshaw went on to say, "I am not saying that dogs are stupid. Their minds are very good at doing what they do. They can react more quickly to human body language than humans can. But we anthropomorphize, assuming they emotionalize identically to us, and that's the mistake."

This might actually be a failing of our own. Humans have a seemingly innate desire to project our own experience onto those around us. It's one of the ways we navigate the world. We judge our own actions by considering how it might feel to be on the receiving end of them.

This works pretty well when engaging other members of our own species. It's a pretty sure bet, considering similar biology and social conditioning, that those around us think, feel, and behave in ways in which we are familiar. What Bradshaw and his colleagues are suggesting is that this line of thinking breaks down when dealing with animals whose minds are different from our own.

That isn't to say, however, that animals are entirely incapable of judging a situation and even a person. According to a study published in the journal Animal Cognition dogs are capable of judging the reliability of a person with whom they interact.

In the experiment, a human participant pointed at one of two containers which may or may not have contained food, while a dog watched. After the participant gestured at one of the two containers, the dog was shown which of the two actually held the food. Next, participants gestured again at one of two containers and researchers observed how the dog reacted. The experiment showed that the dogs were distrustful of participants who previously directed them to an empty container.

This suggests that dogs are capable of making character judgments of people they encounter, based on their interactions. The important point here is that these judgments are not innate or instinctual, but are based on experience.

Reports of pets being able to make a judgment about a person they've never met before are anecdotal and likely after-the-fact rationalizations. Cats and dogs are many things, but they are not psychic.

When we experience an animal behaving in a way that seems utterly human or seemingly making decisions that suggest a high level of intelligence, there are likely a few things going on. We can't discount the importance of conditioning and adaptive change over thousands of years.

Research suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that we did not domesticate dogs. Instead, they domesticated themselves. There is evidence that changes in specific genes led to certain ancient wolves who were intrinsically friendlier — or more likely to interact with humans than their counterparts — taking advantage of spending time with us and self-selecting for those genes.

In order to co-habitate, the wolves would have had to have been successful in sussing out our moods and reacting accordingly. And animals are particularly good at this sort of problem-solving. While humans spend a lot of time examining the evidence and calculating the odds, behavior that has worked out very well for us, animals are good at taking indirect evidence and acting, as suggested in the Animal Cognition study.

This sort of thinking can lead to interesting results, including some animals' ability to solve mathematical problems that trip up humans. An interesting example is that of pigeons and probabilities.

The Monty Hall Problem is a famous statistical thought experiment wherein you are asked to select from three doors, one of which has a prize behind it. After you've chosen, one of the other two doors is revealed to have no prize. Now you are given an opportunity to stick with your initial choice or switch to the remaining door. What do you do?

Gut instinct tells us that it makes no difference, each of the doors has a one in three chance of having a prize. Nothing has changed. But that's incorrect. Here's why.

The likelihood that your initial choice was correct is only one in three. This means that the probability of the prize being behind one of the other two doors is two in three. That doesn't change just because one of the doors has been revealed. The aggregate probability remains the same. So, by switching, you up your chance to 2/3, double the odds of your initial choice.

Humans are famously bad at figuring this out. But pigeons aren't. It isn't that they are doing the math, they are simply able to see the pattern after being presented with it a few times. They see the evidence and follow it. And that's likely what most non-human animals are doing.

There's nothing magical about their behavior, they're just better than us at seeing some things for what they really are, paradoxically because they are thinking less.

Which means, Drogon and Rhaegal probably couldn't sense Jon's Targaryen blood. There was nothing so magical happening. They were simply interpreting Daenerys' body language and acting accordingly. Which is to say, if you ever encounter a dragon, you better hope you have a mutual friend.