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Animals Have Emotions, May Help People Understand Theirs

Dolphins and other animals have emotions

(EmaxHealth) - Have you ever felt like your dog or cat knows what you are feeling and empathizes with you? Do you think other animals have emotions, and if they do, is it important? According to Jaak Panksepp, professor of veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacy and physiology at Washington State University, “I think the more we know about the emotions of other animals, the more we will understand our own emotions.”

Since animals have emotions, will people treat them better?

The idea that animals have emotions and can display empathy (the ability to recognize and share feelings or emotions that are experienced by another person or other animal) is not a new one, but it is an area that is still under much research and not without controversy.

At the University of Chicago, recent publication of research in Science showing empathy in rodents was “the first evidence of helping behavior triggered by empathy in rats,” according to Jean Decety, PhD, Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry. In the experiment, rats repeatedly freed their captured fellow rodents from a cage. The free rats were not trained in any way to open the cage, and once they learned out to accomplish it, they were not dissuaded from doing so even when tempted with chocolate.

Other evidence of rat empathy was seen as free rats were more agitated when another rat was restrained compared to when there was no captured rat in their presence. The researchers noted that this response was evidence of “emotional contagion,” a phenomenon seen in both people and animals in which they share in the emotions—fear, pain, distress—experienced by another being.

Dr. Panksepp, who penned a response to the Science article and also participated in an interview with the Washington State University News Center, has done extensive research in how basic emotions arise from deep, ancient regions of the brain. He noted that people within the scientific arena are still resistant to the idea that “nonhuman animals have affective experiences, and that these can and should be studied in empirical ways.”

Fortunately, not everyone in the scientific community feels that way, and so there are studies investigating how animal emotions impact their memory, learning, and behavior.

A recent article in New Scientist discussed whether dolphins, which are highly intelligent mammals with the ability to learn sentence structure and meaning, learn a vocabulary of about 40 words, and possess an ability for abstract thought, understand the concept of mortality. The author noted that social animals such as gorillas and elephants have behaviors similar to human mourning when another one of their species dies.

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That same ability may be found in dolphins, which, along with whales and other cetaceans, have specialized neurons (von Economo neurons) that are associated with empathy and intuition in humans. Could those neurons be a reason why some dolphins display what appears to be grief and mourning when they repeatedly attempt to save their young?

In the wild, there has been more than one occasion when researchers have observed adult dolphins trying to save an injured or dying young dolphin. Joan Gonzalvo of the Tethys Research Institute noted how their team of Earthwatch Institute volunteers watched as a mother dolphin tried repeatedly to get her newborn calf to breathe by lifting it to the surface again and again and calling to it. “The mother never separated from her calf,” said Gonzalvo.

In addition to studies of dolphins, other work is being conducted with primates, whales, elephants, dogs, cats, and other animals. All this research is important for both humans and animals.

According to Panksepp, “There is no question that all other animals have emotional feelings. The science is strong for that.” The challenges may lie in better identifying and comparing the intensity of these feelings among the different species, demonstrating the presence of emotions in animals to people, and hoping the knowledge helps stamp out cruelty.

Panksepp noted “because we have a greater capacity to think than most, we can do more with our emotions than other animals.” He also warned that “the only way that empathy will continue to grow is if our higher mind gets in touch with the better angels of our lower minds—with maternal care and social joy being among the most important.”

What impact will knowing that animals have emotions, too, have on humans? Panksepp believes such knowledge can lead to a better understanding of our own emotions. “The more we know about our animal emotions,” he said, “which support the rest of our mental apparatus, the more ideas we will have about how to be better people.” And being better people can include acting in a more compassionate and understanding way with members of the animal kingdom.

Inbal B-A B et al. Science 2011 Dec 9; 334(6061): 1427-30
New Scientist
Washington State University

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons