“We are like people looking for something they have in their hands all the time; we’re looking in all directions except at the thing we want, which is probably why we haven’t found it”
Plato – The Republic
As a species, those of us not entirely consumed with the minutiae of survival seem to be desperately searching for ways to better understand ourselves – our basic nature – and its relationship with the world around us. In recent years, and despite the astonishing technological feats accomplished in the modern age, we seem still to be utterly perplexed by the very fundamentals of the human condition. The result? A sudden surfeit of Ph.D psychologists on every suburban corner, an entire industry of self-help literature and an endless stream of psychobabble and behavioural dodgy-science in each of the variety of media outlets we now so avariciously consume.
But seeking self-knowledge from these sources often seems such a frustrating pursuit. The information we get seems too often to contradict our intuitive reading of things, and however much we diligently try to modify our raw perception and respond accordingly, the fundamental disconnection between what we are being told and what we feel sometimes seems impossible to breach. In response, it is explained that this is due to our non-specialist naivety, our misinterpretation of ourselves or perhaps even a willful and self-serving ignorance – but even that doesn’t help us feel any better.
Descarte’s legacy for non-human animals
And when it comes to our interaction with the non-human animals around us – in particular those animals with which we live our lives – we seem to be confronted by a similar frustration. In my very early professional life as a consulting Animal Behaviourist, I frequently found myself offering standardized and supposedly scientifically validated explanations with which I felt intuitively uncomfortable, and which it was glaringly obvious my clients didn’t buy either. But it was the accepted way of seeing things, and received wisdom is the life-blood of the responsible professional. Venturing outside these confines risks charges of apostasy, or even worse in this case.. anthropomorphism!
Of course this is not a simple and linear issue, and there are undoubtedly a range of reasons for this sense of alienation that seems so widespread. Most people not educated in the field of behavioural psychology aren’t aware, and may be somewhat astonished to realize, that there is a prevailing belief within much of science – and especially neuroscience and psychology – that only humans are considered ‘conscious’: where consciousness refers to the ability to experience internal, subjective and personal feelings such as happiness, joy, sadness, fear and anger etc. (referred to in psychology as ‘affects’)12
According to this rigid and sterile way of looking at things, the abiding and somewhat expedient notion espoused by 17th Century French Philosopher, Renee Descarte – that non-human animals are ‘mere automata; complex machines incapable of feelings’ – is consolidated and given a deceptive veneer of scientific validation.
And even though behavioural psychology, which remains a dominant influence in how the mind-brain-behaviour continuum is still studied and understood, does recognize human emotional experience, its primary concern remains with higher function, cognitive mediation and the intersection of emotion with memory and learning.
One of the primary advantages of using an empirical approach – always seeking irrefutable evidence for theories – is the predictive value that the scientific method promises. So in my work with domestic animals, the question of usefulness was central: could this approach offer me the best way to understand what was going on, and optimize my ability to predict outcomes? Oftentimes, it certainly did and still does. But too frequently, especially when dealing with very deep-set problems that seemed to go beyond the immediate environment and/or learning and appeared to me to be obviously emotional, it was entirely inadequate. And so I changed my approach.
Years later, it seems so obvious: we can only be presumptuous and almost certainly mistaken if we assume that the very subjective, internal EXPERIENCES that we so easily recognize within ourselves are entirely absent in other animals; inner STATES can’t simply be denied by default, or glossed over as occupying the realm of unknowable ‘black boxes’. It’s not even that these experiences were ever proven not to exist in animals – just that they were impossible to measure at the time.
That’s long changed, and the pioneering work over the last 25 years of neuroscientists like Jaak Panksepp, amongst others, has provided a wealth of evidence for CORE emotions in non-human animals. Many others, including Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson, Marc Bekoff and Jane Goodall, have since written copiously about animal emotions. But there remains a widespread and stubborn resistance to any revision of established behaviourist paradigms, especially amongst behavioural psychologists3, and it is beginning to seem like it has less to do with science than with dogma.. and a powerful agricultural lobby.
The human experience
And it isn’t simply the denial of animal consciousness that has been strangled by this positivist domination of the behavioural sciences. In my personal life I eventually recognized that trying to corral deep-set human emotions by assuming they’re just the product of faulty memory or learning, or can be explained by reference to some other, higher cognitive function, is equally futile. So too with assuming that emotions are necessarily shaped by beliefs – either false or otherwise – or that changing any of these external, third party elements will necessarily change internal feelings. Organic behaviour and the mind-brain that underpins it, is way more ancient and complex than that.
In the process of trying too hard to protect the enlightenment values that have served us so well in so many areas, something’s gone horribly wrong. We have lost sight of something much more fundamental and obvious about each and everyone’s subjective EXPERIENCE of life, the emotions that impact each of us throughout the day but seem almost impossible to quantify. We have lost focus on the centrality and biological origins of our most basic emotions – the affects – and been taught to mistrust feelings.
And most importantly, for too long we have been impacted by the notion that these feelings are of secondary importance – just internal reactions to external stimuli – rather than the very genesis of much behaviour. It suggests an intrinsic passivity, being perpetually at the environment’s mercy, but that’s unlikely to be evolution’s prudent legacy. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge a fundamental reality – that biological emotions have agency.
This is just an introduction and general overview of the subject of emotions, an essential subject that I will be revisiting and fleshing out in future posts.
- Panksepp, J. (2005) Toward a science of ultimate concern. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 22-29 ↩
- Emotions’R'Us – website of Robert Falconer-Taylor BVetMed DipCABT MRCVS ↩
- Watt, D. (2005) Panksepp’s common sense view of affective neuroscience is not the commonsense view in large areas of neuroscience. Consciousness and Cognition. ↩
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