The Current Science of Animal Emotions

In a past post, I argued that our best current theory on animal qualia was that animals did feel qualia. In a later post, I went over Temple Gradin’s arguments that pain and suffering aren’t the same things and that animals do feel pain, but suffer less than humans.

I wanted to post here several other quotes from Grandin about what our current best scientific theories say about animal emotions. I’m interested in this subject because I feel they do tell us something about pre-universal explainer intelligence. All quotes are taken from Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.

One note: much of this does not by itself require an assumption that animals actually feel qualia. There are specific experiments, that I’ve previously mentioned in past posts, that make that the best explanation. Here I’m not assuming that. This overall framework for animals emotions could largely be thought of as functioning even if animals were automatons. They might have a “rage” mode, for example, without feeling any actual rage. However, at least a tacit assumption of qualia seems to be inextricably woven into most of the current theories on animal emotions. (i.e. it’s hard to make sense of the theory while thinking of animals only in terms of ‘reactions’ and ‘signaling.’) And the fact that we do understand animal behavior and human behavior through the very same set of known “emotions” is also significant. But my point of this post isn’t to argue for animal qualia this time. This theory is a valuable explanation without that.

We know animals and humans share the same core feelings partly because we know quite a bit about how our core emotions are created in the brain, and there’s no question animals share that biology with us. Their emotional biology is so close to ours that most of the research on the neurology of emotions — or affective neuroscience — is done with animals. When it comes to the basics of life, like getting eaten by a tiger or protecting the young, animals feel the same way we do.

The main difference between animal emotions and human emotions is that animals don’t [often] have mixed emotions the way normal people do. animals aren’t ambivalent…

Animals in Translation, p. 88

Researchers have identified and mapped out four primal emotions, all of which mature not long after an animal is born. They are:

1. Rage
2. Prey chase drive
3. Fear
4. Curiosity / interest / anticipation.

Most animals also have four primary social emotions, which are not as well mapped:

1. Sexual attraction and lust
2. Separation distress (mother and baby)
3. Social attachment
4. Play and roughhousing

Animals in Translation, p. 93-94

But now researchers see things differently. We have a lot of evidence that the reason a drug like cocaine feels good is that it’s intensely stimulating to the SEEKING system in the brain, not to any pleasure center. What the self-stimulating rats were stimulating was their curiosity / interest / anticipation circuits. That’s what feels good; being excited about things and intensely interested in what’s going on — being what people used to call “high on life.”!

There are at least three different lines of evidence for this new interpretation. One is the fact that animals who are having this part of the brain stimulated act intensely curious. The second is the fact that human beings who are having this part of the brain stimulated say they feel excited and interested.

The third is the clincher. This part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might be nearby but stops firing when the animal sees the actual food itself. The SEEKING circuit fires during the search for food, not during the final locating or eating of the food. It’s the search that feels so good.

That’s no as surprising as it sounds when you think about it. At the most basic level, animals and humans are wired to enjoy hunting for food. That’s why hunters like to hunt even if they’re not going to eat what they kill: they like the hunting part in and of itself. …humans [may] enjoy any kind of hunt: they like hunting through flea markets for hidden finds; they like hunting for answers to medical problems on the Internet; they like hunting for the ultimate meaning of life in church or in a philosophy seminar. All of those activities come out of the same system in the brain.

Animals in Translation, p. 96

All mammals and birds are curious about and interested in their surroundings, and they really look forward to good things happening. You can see how much fun the state of anticipation is for an animal anytime you’re getting a dog’s food ready. All you have to do is start pouring dry kibble in a dog dish and your dog will break out in a huge doggy smile and begin wagging his tail at top speed. Getting-ready-to-eat is always a happy moment in a dog’s life.

Animals in Translation, p. 94

Animals make social distinctions between friend and stranger the same way people do, too. I heard a story about a guy who was stealing pigs at an auction a while back. … They discovered who the thief was when somebody noticed a pen where none of the pigs were lying together. Each pig was keeping his distance from the others, and they guy who noticed them realized that pigs in that pen were acting like strangers. They reason they were acting like strangers was that they were strangers. They’d [been stolen] from different farms.

Animals in Translation, p. 109

Most experts believe that the reason [animals like wolves that later became domesticated] became domesticated was that [those species] were highly social [naturally]. Their innate sociability led them to associate with humans and eventually to accept human ownership and direction. That’s a high degree of sociability, and it’s still there in all of our domestic animals. Even cats are much more social than people realize; sister cats even help each other give birth. All domesticated animals need companionship. It is as much a core requirement as food and water.

Animals in Translation, p. 110

Most children will confidently explore a strange environment as long as their mother is with them, but when she leaves the room they’ll stop exploring and wait anxiously for her to come back. Dogs do exactly the same thing. This has been tested formally in fifty-one dogs and owners. Most dogs stop exploring and act anxious when their owner leaves the room. Then they relax and start exploring again when their owner returns.

Animals in Translation, p. 111

[In another experiments] researchers have found is that animals get much more social when they take naltrexone, which is exactly what they hoped they’d find [as a way to increase animal sociability.]

Here’s how it works. Naltrexone blocks the effects of opioids in the brain, which feels bad. Functionally speaking, having your opioids blocked is the same as having low opioids. Social contact raises opioids in the brain, which feels good. In theory, animals who’ve taken naltrexone ought to get more and more social because they are trying to raise their endorphin levels back up to where they were before the naltrexone blocked them. An animal whose endorphins are low should try to raise his endorphins by getting more social contact the same way a heroin addict whose heroin levels have gotten low will want to use more heroin.

That’s what happened in the experiments. … Animals taking naltrexone become more sociable.

Animals in Translation, p. 113

The other piece of evidence that play fighting isn’t about learning how to win [fights] is the fact that all animals both win and lose their play fights. No young animal ever wins all his play fights; if he did, nobody would play with him.

Animals in Translation, p. 122

Even seemingly unsocial animals like giraffes are turning out to have friendships now that people are studying their social structures more closely. A researcher… started researching giraffe friendships after two female giraffes got extremely upset when the male giraffe they’d lived with for nine years in the Atlanta Zoo was taken away. Neither female had ever mated with him, and from what the humans could see, the three giraffes hardly interacted much at all. So no one was expecting the females to react badly when the male was moved. But both females were horribly upset…

[When the researcher studied giraffe friendships after this incident] She found that giraffes have buddies just like every other social animal we know. A giraffe will spend 15 percent of its time grazing with its friend, and only 5 percent of its time grazing close to any other giraffe.

Animals in Translation, p. 129

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