The Great Debate Over Whether Animals Have Emotions

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A long-standing debate over whether animals have emotions and feelings is being reshaped by new tools and concepts.

Why is this important: Understanding whether nonhuman animals have emotions — and how they are formed if they do — could provide new insights into human mental health.

The big picture: Emotion is difficult to study. There is no formal, widely held definition of what an emotion is, and neuroscientists, biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers all have different views.

  • A question among them focus on the amount of emotions hard-wired into the neural networks of the brain that can even be found in humans, mammals, and other animals, or whether they are the products of a culture-influenced conscious brain , experience and learning.

Many studies on human emotion relied on asking people of all cultures to match facial expressions to emotions. The fact that they often attribute the same emotion to the same expression has led some psychologists to conclude that there are a handful of universal base emotions like fear or anger that are innate.

  • But the method is criticized by some researchers and the idea of ​​basic emotions is disputed. “Nobody can tell you what the rules are for weeding out non-core emotions from core emotions,” says Andrew Ortony, professor emeritus of psychology at Northwestern University, who leans on the side of culture guiding emotion.
  • Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal, who studies the behavior of chimps and other animals, also says to keep focusing on the face because the window into emotional experience is “misguided,” but for reasons different. It omits animals without facial expressions, like dolphins or fish, and that implies that love, hope and other emotions not in the base bucket are uniquely human, he says.
  • “I think all the emotions that humans have are variations of animal emotions,” he says.

What’s new: Mounting evidence suggests that crabs and some other invertebrates — in addition to fish and mammals — experience emotions, write de Waal and philosopher Kristin Andrews of York University in Toronto. Science today.

  • The crabs were found to stay away from parts of a tank where scientists shocked them. De Waal and others argue that such learned behavior is not an unconscious reflex because crabs actively avoid these places, which means they have to centrally process that going there is not doing them any good. good.
  • But by Ortony’s definition, it’s not the same as feeling emotions, he says.

Studying the biology of emotion in mice, fruit flies, jellyfish and other animals is also important because it allows scientists to perform biological experiments that they cannot do in humans, writes Caltech neuroscientist David Anderson in his new book, “The Nature of the Beast”.

  • They can use tools like optogenetics to turn neurons on and off in the brains of rodents and other animals to see if they are causing an emotion or if their activity is a consequence of an emotion.
  • This information “is important if you are trying to decide which type of neuron to study in order to find a new treatment for anxiety disorders,” he writes.

The big problem: Unlike humans, other animals cannot tell scientists if or how they are feeling. (Humans aren’t exactly reliable here either: we lie about our feelings, sometimes aren’t aware of them, or just can’t describe them. Ask any therapist.)

  • But Anderson argues that it doesn’t matter. For him and others, emotions are internal, unconscious states of brain neurons that exist separately from a feeling, which is conscious.
  • These emotional states can be seen in behaviors like aggression, which have different properties — they persist and their intensity can vary — that distinguishes them from reflexes, Anderson writes.

  • These “primitive emotions” are seen in the behavior of mice and fruit flies, and in the neurons in their brains that are associated with these behaviors, he writes. That suggests they’re common and innate – but he says that doesn’t mean the emotions of flies are as complex as those of mice or humans.

But, but, but… New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, whose research focuses on fear, argues that these ancient neural circuits seen in different species may very well control defensive behavior, but that fear is a conscious feeling assembled by cognition, which has evolved more recently.

Most scientists recognize some of the confusion and cross-talk about emotions in science is rooted in the vague language of our daily experience as humans which can affect how they even talk about emotions and feelings, the terms being used in a interchangeable.

  • And some suspicious emotions and feelings stem from a combination of culture and biology.

What to watch: Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University who has championed the idea that emotion is culturally constructed, recently wrote that “genes and environment are so deeply intertwined…that it is basically pointless to call them distinct names like ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’.”

  • In a recent study, psychologists Gaurav Suri of San Francisco State University and James Gross of Stanford University constructed artificial neural networks representing facial expressions, physiological responses, or other body characteristics. emotion to model how an emotion occurs.
  • When they gave feedback to the network, they found that under certain circumstances the network responded in a way consistent with theories that emotions are the same from person to person and innate, and in other circumstances with the idea that emotions are constructed or learned.
  • Suri warns that this is only a model, but he suggests that “emotions are emergent phenomena resulting from many diverse interactions. There is no point in asking whether emotions are fundamental or constructed.”
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