How do animals think?
Have you ever wondered what goes on in an animal's mind? What kinds of thoughts it has, or whether it can be sad or happy? Do they think like people do? It turns out that research is proving more and more just how complex animals' thoughts can be. And some of the things they are capable of are quite amazing!
There are 1,305,250 species of animals in this world, 62,305 of these with backbones1. We are all made up of similar systems. However different species, of which humans are just one, all have different abilities and needs in order to be fit and happy. Many feel the same kinds of sensations and emotions as us: hunger and thirst, heat and cold, pain and pleasure, fear, stress and anxiety2. But they don't always feel things in the same way, or react in ways that make it easy for humans to understand.
Most animals are what we describe as 'sentient' - they can think, perceive their environment, and experience suffering and pleasure, although they may experience and understand these in diverse ways3. Animals are also 'conscious' just like people, that is, they have an awareness of things within themselves and their surroundings4. There are different levels of consciousness and some animals have higher levels than others5. Lower levels of consciousness allow species to experience sensations and emotions, but not necessarily be aware of more complex ideas like time and space. For example, hermit crabs have been found to respond to painful stimulations by evacuating their shells, although those with better quality shells take longer to leave than those with poor quality shells. This suggests to scientists that the crabs are motivated to hang onto these more valuable items, although they may not be as aware as say a human would be about why they received the pain, or what they could do to avoid it6. Higher consciousness allows species, including people and some animals, to think about their past, and make plans for the future. For example, when studying chimpanzees, Jane Goodall noted when chimpanzees are aggressive towards another member of the group, it may cause that individual to leave the group after repeated attacks. This shows us that the chimpanzee can remember what happened to it in the past, and make a decision to do something about its experiences8. New Caledonian Crows are able to learn how to make, and use a variety or tools and when given the choice, select ones that are appropriate for a particular task9. This demonstrates their ability to learn from the past, and make decisions about what is required for the future.
Some examples of ways that animals can think differently to people:
- An animal may not react in the same way when it is injured. Prey species like mice can be good at hiding their pain, especially when showing weakness may mean they could get eaten by an eagle!10
- An animal may not be able to explain uncomfortable experiences to itself, in the way that we can, say when we visit the dentist. This means that they may feel more frightened and unsure about experiences, similar to how a child may react when it gets hurt.
- Sometimes animals can enjoy the same kinds of experience as we do. We've all seen a dog enjoy a lie in the sunshine, or munch on delicious food! Or a mother cow interact with its new born calf.
Although it may not be possible for other species to compose masterpieces of music like Beethoven or Mozart did, science is discovering the amazing abilities of animals that we once thought were only possessed by people. Animals as diverse as octopuses, dolphins, apes and birds use tools11. Apes, dolphins and parrots can understand some basic human language12. Other animals demonstrate empathy and altruism. Some animals have even demonstrated a degree of self-awareness, that is, knowing that they are an individual that is separate from others and from the environment13. Apes, elephants, magpies and dolphins have all shown in tests with mirrors that the image in the mirror is a reflection of their own body. When a mark is put on their skin, they touch the mirror to try to groom themselves14!
We may never be able to understand how an animal thinks, just like we may never be able to understand just how our friends or family think! But what is important to remember is that we are just one of many species, and many of these species of animals, just like us, are conscious, and are able to feel emotions and pain or pleasure, too.
In 2012, group of neuroscientists attending a conference on "Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals" at Cambridge University in the UK, signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness15. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness states: "The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates."
1 The World Conservation Union. 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Summary Statistics for Globally Threatened Species. Table 1: Numbers of threatened species by major groups of organisms (1996–2010).
2 Duncan, I (2006) The changing concept of animal sentience, Applied animal behaviour science, pg 11-19; Balcombe, J (2009) Animal pleasure and its moral significance, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, pg 208-216
3 Animals, Ethics and Trade – The Challenge of Animal Sentience (2006) ed. Turner, J and D'Silva, J. Earthscan London.
4 Chandroo, KP, Duncan, I and Moccia, RD (2004) Can ﬁsh suffer?: perspectives on sentience,
pain, fear and stress, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, pg 225-250
5Elwood, RW, Narr, S and Patterson, L (2009) Pain and stress in crustaceans? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, pg 128-136; Rose, JD (2002) The neurobehavioral nature of ﬁshes and the question of awareness and pain. Rev. Fisheries Sci. pg 1–38
6Appel, M and Elwood RW (2009)Motivational trade-offs and potential pain experience in hermit crabs, Applied Animal Behaviour Science (119), pg 120-124
7 Duncan, I (2006) The changing concept of animal sentience, Applied animal behaviour science, pg 11-19
8Goodall, J (1984) Social rejection, exclusion, and shunning among the Gombe chimpanzees, Journal of Ethology and Sociobiology (7), pg 227-234
9 Kenward, B, Rutz, C, Weir, A.S and Kacelnik, A (2006) Development of tool use in New Caledonian crows: inherited action patterns and social influences, Animal Behaviour (72), pg 1329-1343
10 Martinez, V, Coutinho, SV, Thakur, S, Mogil, JS and Tache, Y (1999), Differential effects of chemical and mechanical colonic irritation on behavioral pain response to intraperitoneal acetic acid in mice, Pain (81), pg 179-186
11Boesch, C, Boesch, H (1990) Tool Use and Tool Making in Wild Chimpanzees, Folia Primatol pg 86-99; Amant, R and Horton, TE (2008) Revisiting the deﬁnition of animal tool use, Animal Behaviour, pg 1199-1208
12Shettleworth, SJ (2010) Cognition, Evolution and Behavior, 2nd ed, Oxford University Press, NY
13Couchman, JJ, Coutinho, MVC, Beran, MJ, Smith, D (2010) Beyond Stimulus Cues and Reinforcement Signals: A New Approach to Animal Metacognition, J Comp Psychol, pg 356-368
14 Prior H, Schwarz A, Gunturkun O (2008) Mirror-induced behavior in the magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of self-recognition, PLoS Biol 6(8): e202. doi:10.1371/journal