Animals, emotions, and learning

I posted a topic on Koko here in GD rather than hijack this one further. For those interested here is the link: Can Koko the gorilla actually talk?

Animals clearly have emotions. Fear, jealousy, anger, even shame can be observed in many higher mammals – in zoos, in the wild, and in our homes.

Humans clearly have instincts. We are born with a preference for sociability and a reluctance to approach precipices (which not all animals are) and scores of other useful software daemons – and Steven Pinker has argued (I believe conclusively) that language acquisition is instinctual, not cultural (i.e., “learned” in the sense that we learn history or higher mathematics).

There is no evidence that animals possess the ability to learn and use language. The Koko/Washoe “research” is bogus, as I hope has been demonstrated in the thread cited by Whack-a-Mole above. Perhaps dolphins have syntax, but as of now, we simply don’t know.

The “animal language” issue, however, is separate from the issues of emotion and learning.

I think Arwin went to the heart of the matter. The brain structures responsible for emotional response are definitely present in many animals (not just mammals). The larger question regarding animal emotions concerns whether they consciously experience these emotions, or are just reacting to the chemicals without “feeling” anything.

Daniel Dennett has proposed that a multi-layered brain (such as our medulla/cerebrum/cerebellum structure) is fundamental to creating conscious experience – in essence, that there must be one part of the brain which receives and processes raw data, and another part of the brain which receives processed information as input. I won’t go into the details, but if you’re interested, read Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”.

I believe that the basics of Dennett’s theory are probably right.

In any case, there’s no doubt in my mind that (a) my dogs not only have emotions, but experience them, and (b) insects have no conscious experience of anything, even though they can be said to appear “content”, “angry”, “territorial”, “threatened”, “horny”, etc.

I agree that animals–at least higher ones–do experience emotion. I also agree that they do not have a language ability. I am sure that the language ability allows us to elaborate on our emotions–“oh pain! oh grief! oh great gaping blackness in my heart!”–in a way that animals without language cannot, thereby adding a unique dimension to them. To Fido, not wanting his dinner is the equivalent of bad poetry.

As a dog trainer who works with working and service animals, I have to agree. Dogs who make good service/guide dogs usually have strong social drive and a willingness to please - they take great joy in their work.

Two of the breeds I work with (the NSDTR and the Australian Shepherd) only need to be observed on and off duty to see the changes in their mood: My toller looks sullen and bored and mopes around until he is working - his expression then changes to a keen, happy, if not ecstatic one. He goes from “interractive rug” who moves like a slug to a keen, alert, reacts-in-a-flash dog. The aussies are happy when working, and mellow when not.

Zap (an aussie) and Valen (a toller) both exhibit signs of frustration when learning difficult new tasks. Had they no emotions whatsoever, this drive to learn and please would not exist. Social drive in dogs is highly related to their ability to perform certain jobs (service, guide, working, SAR, police K9, narcotics detection, therapy, etc.)

So the question is - where does instinct stop and emotion begin? I’m not sure. All I know, though, is that a dog who is able to alert for seizures before they occur has something more going for it than just pure instinct. It’s not something they’d need or use in the wild… and it cannot be taught… but these animals show immediate concern for their owners, alert them to the oncoming danger, and insist they head somewhere safe before the seizure hits. This is NOT a behavior we trainers are able to train into a dog. We train some seizure alert dogs to respond WHEN a seizure occurs… but there are a handful of working animals out there who are not only able to detect them before they hit but who automatically, without training, get their concern across to their owners…

I’d like to believe our dogs do feel emotion. Mine certainly let me know when they are unhappy, happy, sad, frustrated, scared, territorial, or just plain bored.

I disagree.

While Fido may not be able to verbally communicate their distress (or happiness or whatever) they can and do communicate it.

Read my quotes above on elephants showing distress over dead comrades. Surely if the elephant didn’t care or feel pain at the loss of a member of its group it’d just move on rather than face down a pride of lions who just killed another elephant. I can also see no reason why, of all the bones elephants likely come across in their wanderings, they will pile up bones of other elephants (I have also seen them caressing the bones of dead elephants). I see no other explanation for these actions than outward signs of distress or grief even when the immediacy of a death has long past (e.g. caressing bones).

There is also the story of Flo and Flint which I imperfectly related and others filled in for me.

Certainly not all, or even most, mammals will show such complicated reactions to death but I think it does show that there is at least a spectrum with humans at the top and sliding down rather than a hard and fast wall with only humans able to evince complicated emotional responses.

And also didn’t read closely. I was not saying that animals do not feel emotions deeply, or that they do not express them. I said that having language as a tool allows a special dimension of expression and elaboration. It allows us to spin narratives around what we’re feeling, to reference other narratives and apply them to our own situation, in short–to make ourselves more miserable or more happy than we would be otherwise.

Indeed, thanks to language, we can have intense emotional responses to things that aren’t even real, like the imaginary worlds of books and films or worries about hypothetical future situations.

By the same token, we can use language to control and check our emotions. I’m sure all animal owners and caretakers on this board know the frustration (in some cases, the anguish) of having to take a beloved critter to the vet for a necessary but temporarily frightening and painful procedure and not being able to explain to them what’s going on or why. Same is true for kids, only moreso – once they’re old enough to be comforted by language, it’s easier.

So I would have to agree with Sattua that while the higher animals all share the conscious experience of emotion, the presumably uniquely human trait of language allows for some significant differences in how humans are able to process those emotions.

The teacher is wrong. I have plenty of animals- dogs, cats, chickens, a rabbit, parakeets, etc. They are all capable of showing emotion and are also fully capable of learning, within the limits of their species.

The teacher is also wrong about humans lacking instinct. Try sticking your hand in a fire. Instinct will stop you. Try to not block something that is thrown at your head. Instinct will make you block it. Think about how upset/angry you get when someone takes what belongs to you - it’s good old fashioned territorial instinct.

Different animals can do things we can not do. Maybe in their view, we are the stupid ones.

Yeah, anyone who tells you that animals, particularly mammals, do not have emotions is full of it. IMO, what separates humans from other beasts is that we tell stories.

I can’t remember what nature show it was, but I saw one about ten years ago where a biologist came right out and said it: “Instinct” is a word biologists apply to an animal’s behavior as a shorthand for “we have no idea how they know how to do that”.

I think there is a serious problem here with people conflating whether animals fell emotions, and whether animals fell emotions in any way that could possibly be meaningful or interpreted by humans. And if animal emotions are so alien that they can’t be interpreted by humans then we are simply anthropomorphising those emotions and there’s no objective reason to believe they exist at all.

As an example:

Chickens? Really? How could a human know that chickens feel amotion in any way that is able to be interpreted by humans? A chicken can be imprinted on a balloon or any other moving object. It will thenceforth react to that balloon as if it were its mother. It will become distressed when the balloon isn’t around, it will seek the balloon for reassurance after being stressed. In short it will behave as though it loves the balloon. Now either the chicken version of the emotion we call love inhuman infants is wildly different to that emotion to the point of denying human interpretation, or else the apparent manifestations of that emotion are not what they appear and are simply interpreted that way by humans.

And that’s the heart of the matter. I wouldn’t doubt that many animals feel emotion, but once we get beyond placental mammals these species diverged from our own so long ago that they are radically different, and any emotions they might feel can’t be readily interpreted. And since they can’t be accurately interpreted there’s really no objective way of determining that they even exist.

A day-old chicken cuddling up to a balloon isn’t evidence that the chicken loves the balloon in any way that makes sense to humans, it’s just a response to a pre-programmed stimulus in the chicken brain. Instinct in the truest form. It looks like love to us because if a human behaved in that way it would be love. And the same doubt then has to be cast over other apparent emotions such as fear. A chicken ducks or runs for cover when a shadow passes overhead. It might look like a fear of hawks but it is very likely it’s just a instinctive reaction since it’s also exhibited by chickens that have been hand reared inside and have never seen a hawk.

It would be incredibly difficult to find behaviour in any bird that provides clear evidence for emotion. Bird brains have evolved to meet the constraints of flight. They pack a lot of complexity into a tiny weight and a lot of that has been achieved by hardwiring almost everything. Whereas a mammal has the luxury of a big brain that can learn how to respond to every stimulus through emotional drivers like fear and pleasure those things may be almost completely lacking in birds. The correct reaction is the one that’s hardwired from birth. So a bird running for cover might look like fear and a bird chortling when it is groomed might look like pleasure but there’s reasonable grounds to assume that’s not the case.

You seem to be claiming that if animal emotional experience is not human-like, we cannot be justified in claiming that it might reasonably exist.

I don’t think we should be relying on whether people can somehow identify with an emotional experience to classify it as real. Not sure how we’d apply that standard in practice anyway, since infering emotional experience from behaviour is tricky business.

A combination of behavioural analysis and, most importantly, investigation of brain structure and activity seems the most reasonable method for assessing how likely it is that an emotional state is accompanied by conscious experience.