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This is the context:

This is a difficult issue, to ask about animal subjective experience. For many animals, we can’t be with them without thinking they have subjective experience. To those of you who have a pet dog, I bet you implicitly assume that the dog has a deep and rich subjective experience, even though you just don’t know. Even if we ignore the subjective experience question and ask, What are animals thinking?—which I believe we have better measures to gain some traction on—it is still puzzling.

source: The enigma of human consciousness.New York Academy of Sciences.

What is the meaning of "gain traction on" in this context? I've looked and there were two definitions that looked suitable. one is

1a: things are starting to happen towards whatever the goal is.

2b: advancement, as toward a desired result.

and

the extent to which an idea, product, etc. gains popularity or acceptance.

which one is correct in this context? or if none of them is correct, what is the correct meaning?

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"Traction" is literally the grip of a tyre on a road or a wheel on a rail.

As you can imagine, if there were no grip or friction between the wheel of a car and the road, the wheel would just spin and the car would not move.

If something "gains traction", again, speaking literally, it would begin to grip and start moving.

The term "gains traction" is used in a figurative sense to describe something which has now reached the point of motion. For example, a project in the planning stage may not actually achieve anything tangible, but once the project plan is put into action, the project may be said to have "gained traction".

In your specific example, it would suggest that studies into "what animals are thinking" was perhaps at one time purely theoretical but now is capable of producing tangible results.

"Gaining traction" would suggest that something is moving faster, although a more common expression that is also used figuratively is "gaining momentum".

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I don't think they mean "traction" literally, but rather to gain an understanding of something or gaining acceptance of an idea or made progress.

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  • This answer is too pithy and speculative and reads more like a comment than an answer. – Eddie Kal Feb 22 '20 at 16:57

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