Animals have innate intelligence and consciousness, but humans have a level of awareness like no other. Consciousness; self-awareness; a heightened state of reasoning. Call it what you like; all us animals are conscious beings, but only us humans have that extra spark of higher awareness.
That said, however, animal minds are fascinating. We still don’t understand everything about their thought processes, or how they comprehend the world around them. Do they feel emotions? Can they deceive others? Is humour something that they can appreciate? When we think about our pets, we certainly believe them capable of having emotions – affection, loyalty, love, and so on – as well as intent and goals.
That desire to ascribe human emotions to our pets is called anthropomorphism (which also covers ananimate objects as well – our car “refuses” to start, for example, or when we yell at our computer when it “decides” to stop working). We might say that our dog is “excited” about going to the park or that our cat “hates” going to the vet. But whilst their reactions might be the same, we can’t be sure that they experience emotions in precisely the same way as we do; we know they are not conscious in the same way, but they doesn’t mean that they doesn’t have consciousness in their own way.
Most psychologists agree that it’s the brain where everything we think of as the “mind” is happening. All of your experiences, thoughts, feelings, dreams, memories, imagination, and decisions occur within that relatively small piece of grey matter; how your mind is different to your brain, however, is a different question, and not one that’s ever been fully answered to everyone’s satisfaction – psychologists and philosophers argue between each other, and between themselves. I’ll avoid most of the contentious arguments, mostly because I don’t fully understand them all myself at the moment. However, it’s important to understand how our brain’s structure allows our mind to function, and what this means for animals and their minds.
Emotions are one example of this concept of the mind; they are processed by a specific part of the brain known as the limbic system, as well as the amygdalae – which deals with emotional memory and processing of emotions. It’s a reasonable assumption to think, therefore, that other animals who have a limbic system might also experience emotions – and that species without a limbic system would not experience emotions.
Chimpanzees, cats, crows, and lizards are examples of animals which are able to experience emotions to some degree; they all have a limbic system (of sorts), even if it just the amygdalae.
Scientists can prove that chimpanzees have emotions – experiencing, communicating, and understanding them. That’s not surprising, perhaps, when you consider how closely related humans and chimpanzees are. Again unsurprisingly, cats can experience emotions; we have proof that they feel fear when around dogs – with the amygdalae controlling that response, like in humans.
But emotions isn’t limited to mammals; brain imaging has shown fear responses in crows (again in the amygdalae) and, it would seem, lizards. Being “older” in evolutionary terms, a lizard’s brain doesn’t have the same advanced structures that a mammal’s brain does, such as the neocortex (considered the “newest” part of the brain). Despite that, lizards do have amygdalae, and scientists have some evidence that leads them to think lizards have some degree of basic emotions; a stress response in their hearts when being handled by humans, for example. Intriguingly, amphibians (frogs, toads, etc) didn’t show the same responses. What all this doesn’t mean, however, is that all animals experience emotion in precisely the same way.
Emotions are actually defined in two camps – primary and secondary – by psychologists. Primary emotions are considered the most basic emotions, caused by something external (fear after seeing a predator), and also the initial response to something we’ve felt before (usually without conscious thought). Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are more complex – they can be made up from a combination of primary emotions. They’re not a response to something external – at least, not that immediate, instinctive response we’d see in a primary emotion. Secondary emotions require thought. We might experience melanchology or regret – secondary emotions – when we feel sad about a remembered event.
Emotions are part of what drives us on, of course; they are an integral part of our evolutionary makeup, and it’s hard to imagine life without them. They allow us to take action, survive, avoid danger, make decisions, and to understand others. Equally as importantly, they help other people to understand us.
Another human’s emotions can affect our own; if we see someone showing fear, we tend to instantly be on the lookout for what has caused it. Happiness in others can “rub off” on us. We often get the same sensations from pets; we trust their instincts sometimes around people; if their hackles are raised around a particular person, we find ourselves wondering why they dislike that person so much – and if we should as well.
As humans, we have something called “executive function”; deliberate, thoughtful action aiming for a particular goal. There’s no one part of the brain solely responsible for executive function, althought the neocortex and frontal lobes seem to play important roles.
As with the limbic system and emotion, it’s fair to assume that species with a neocortex could have executive function to some degree, whilst those species without one probably won’t have any executive function.
All mammals have a neocortex; species such as chimpanzees and cats are likely to have a degree of executive function and some ability to plan ahead and solve problems. The chimpanzee neocortex is larger and more developed than that of the cat (see Figure 7), so it is likely to have a greater capability for executive function.
Non-mammal species don’t have a neocortex – but birds have a part of the brain called a dorsal ventricular ridge, and it’s possible that this might perform the same function as the neocortex in humans. Reptiles also have a dorsal ventricular ridge, but it’s nowhere near as developed as its counterpart in birds. So while it’s likely that birds have some degree of executive function, reptiles are less likely to have any.
Let’s talk tools. They are endemic in our history and in our future; from the days when we used nothing more sophisticated than sticks and rocks (and they were powerful tools in their day) to the present day, when computers are integrated into practically every element of our daily lives, tools have advanced our society beyond what we could have done with our bare hands – and it’s an identifying part of our species.
One thing that’s surprising is how little other species use tools regularly. Tools are used, just not in any great degree; some otters break open shellfish with stones; monkeys use stones to break open nuts; some chimpanzees use sticks to help them “fish” for termites. But it’s fairly limited, and you have to ask why; is it because animal minds don’t have the capacity and ability to use tools in the way we do? It requires a number of parts of executive function, including reasoning, planning, and memory.
Great apes – gorillas, chimps, bonobos, and orangs – have been proved to use tools in order to solve problems. Scientists have put food into a construction that can’t be accessed by using their bodies alone. Tools (such as sticks) are left near the construction that will help the ape get access to the food. Great apes were better than other primates (such as monkeys) in selecting the best tools, perhaps because great apes are humanity’s closest living relatives.
Animals are deserving of our respect and our loyalty, because we are part of the animal kingdom too. All to often, people mistreat other species – harming them or killing them out of spite, irritation, or fun – because they are not human. That is reprehensible; we are a part of the natural world, not at the top of it. To assume any differently is unforgiveable; one wonders about the psychology of people who treat animals as undeserving of love nd kindness just because they are different to us. We must protect all species because we are all part of this world, and it would be lovely to live in harmony.