The science of emotions

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Being a great pet owner is to better understand their mind and our own.  One topic hotly debated by owners for centuries is whether our four-legged friends experience emotions.

During the 17th century, Descartes (1596-1650) suggested humans were creatures of reason, linked to the mind of God whereas animals were incapable of consciousness and nothing more than machines with flesh, unable to experience pleasure, pain or fear.  Descartes’ teachings influenced Western beliefs and is blamed for the mistreatment of animals in the years that followed.  By contrast, Darwin (1809-1882) argued humans were not special in their mental abilities, and mental capacities of animals and people only differed in kind, attributing emotions such as love and grief to many species in his book ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals’.

During the 20th century, scientists recorded animals’ input (such as food and environment) and outputs (behaviour) but debated whether studying an animal’s brain and behaviour would ever give a full understanding of the animal’s mind and how it sees the world.  Nevertheless, technological advances including magnetic resonance imaging have shown many animals, such as elephants and dogs, share near-identical nervous systems to humans and are able to process information and express emotions in ways that are accompanied by conscious mental experiences (Fowler and Mikota, 2006; Andics et al., 2014).

Indeed, Jaak Panksepp “twinned” the fields of neuroscience and psychology in 1990, when he introduced the concept of Affective Neuroscience; the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion and mood.  A great voice in the field of neuroscience Panksepp passed away in 2016, however, his legacy includes the proposal that emotion and affect must figure centrally in any potential neuro-architectures creating a conscious mind.  Panksepp (2011) felt that if we understand animal minds we will finally understand our own.  See this great TED talk by Panksepp in which he discusses ‘the seeking system’ in animals from laughing rats to depressed chicks, and how this translates to humans.

 

References
Andics, A., Gásci, M., Faragó, T., Kis, A., and Miklósi, A. (2014) ‘Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain are Revealed by Comparative fMRI.’ Current Biology 24(5) pp. 574-578.
Fowler, M., and Mikota, S.K. (2006) Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of Elephants. Iowa: Blackwell Publishing p. 393.
Panksepp, J. (2011). The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: Do animals have affective lives?. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(9), pp.1791-1804.

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