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Feelings we share?

by Rowan Hooper

To what extent do animals consciously experience emotions?

The question is one that until recently could not have been asked with any seriousness at a scientific conference without risking snorts of derision. Heretofore it just wasn’t done to speculate on animal emotions, because to do so ran the risk of “anthropomorphizing” your subject.

Conscious experience

Yet at an animal behavior meeting I attended last week at the University of Newcastle in northeast England, a session of talks was devoted to just that.

We might assume that animals have some level of conscious experience, said Mike Mendl, a biologist at the University of Bristol in southwest England — but how on earth can we measure emotion?

You can’t ask a pig if it’s happy, or a rat if it is anxious. Or rather, you can ask them anything you want; they just won’t answer.

The way round this, Mendl says, is to put animals in carefully designed environments and watch how they behave. Those raised in environments that are unpredictable, for example, become “pessimistic” about the future, whereas those used to living in stable, settled conditions tend to be more “optimistic.” The outlook of the animal provides a clue to the emotion it may be experiencing.

One of the themes of the Newcastle meeting was that humans can provide a model for understanding animal behavior, rather than the other way around. For example, we know that anxious and depressed people tend to expect bad things to happen — they see the glass as half empty rather than half full — while the opposite is true for happy people. Mendl’s technique allows him to assess whether this is also the case with animals.

To pursue this assessment, Mendl’s team trained rats to recognize that a sound of a particular pitch predicted a good event (the arrival of food) whereas another sound — of a different pitch — predicted a bad event (no food).

The rats were then presented with sounds of intermediate pitch to see whether they treated these ambiguous sounds as indicating the good or bad event.

The experiment showed that rats kept in unpredictable housing conditions were less likely to treat these ambiguous sounds as heralding the arrival of the good event than were rats housed in stable environments.

Similar work has been done with pigs, mice and birds. The judgments made by the animals show parallels with the negative outlook seen in some depressed people, suggesting that a disrupted home life also disrupts their mood.

For most of the 20th century, and before, the idea that animals had emotions and feelings was simply not considered. But the great thing about work such as Mendl’s is that it allows the assessment of emotions without requiring subjective interpretation. So why has it taken so long to get scientists to consider the question of emotions in animals?

One reason is that it is dangerously easy to anthropomorphize. If we are not careful, we start to assume lots of unlikely things. It’s all too easy to assume that animals have a sophisticated “theory of mind” like us — that they can understand what we are thinking and act accordingly. In fact, only the great apes are able to do this.

Humans can do many complex things without being consciously aware of them, so it seems unnecessary to invoke consciousness in animals. Perhaps another reason is simply that allowing the idea that animals have emotions makes it harder to exploit them. If we start empathizing with animals, it makes it unpleasant to put them to the knife.

Nevertheless, we have always empathized with animals. Anyone with a pet will agree that it’s easy to detect the sort of mood the animal is in. If we see an animal in pain, we feel sorry for it. Another biologist from the University of Bristol, John Bradshaw, said at the meeting that it is this empathy for animals that has led to the human habit of keeping pets.

Hunting prerequisite

Empathy with animals, Bradshaw said, might have been a prerequisite for hunting, because it enabled people to better predict animal behavior. It could have been this, he said, that was the difference between more modern Cro-Magnon man and the Neanderthals. These days, pets might hijack our desire to nurture baby animals. Witness the “evolution” of the teddy bear, Bradshaw said.

Originally, teddy bears were realistically bearlike, but they have “evolved” to become more babylike. It’s the same with Mickey Mouse. When Walt Disney first drew Mickey, the mouse was very rodentlike. Now he is more babylike. The ultimate baby-type toy, Bradshaw said, is Hello Kitty. Any more babylike and it would be a fetus.

It seems unlikely to me that empathy with animals is what drives our desire to keep pets. But the very fact that such things are being discussed at respectable scientific conferences is pleasing and encouraging.

As well as offering a way of assessing emotion in animals, the kind of experiments that Mendl and others are doing will help design more welfare-friendly animal housing. This can only be a good thing. And it’s cute to get some scientific insight into the Hello Kitty phenomenon, too.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima Mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human: How New Biology Explains Your Journey Through Life).”