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The Emotions of Animals

jrlewis's picture

In their book “Animals Make Us Human,” Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson raise and attempt to answer the question: “what does an animal need to be happy?” (1).  They discuss the state of household pets, animals used in food production, and wildlife.  Their primary focus is the mental state of an animal inhabiting a human manipulated environment.  In order to measure an animal’s mental state, they assume a specific relationship between the brain and behavior.

Grandin and Johnson use the research and theories of neurobiologist Dr. Jaak Panksepp to explain behavior.  There are core emotion systems common to humans and other mammals according to Panksepp.  Blue ribbon emotions “generate well-organized behavior sequences that can be evoked by localized electrical stimulation” (1, p5).  They have a genetic basis; they are not learned behaviors.  There are four blue ribbon emotions that are relevant to the welfare of an animal throughout its life.   The impulse to explore and make meaning of one’s environment is SEEKING.  SEEKING is a combination of anticipation, curiosity and desire; it is distinctly related to pleasure.  RAGE is the emotion evoked by severe physical restraint of an animal; a milder mental form is frustration.  It is usually accompanied by a burst of energy to the confined animal.   FEAR results from a perceived threat to mental, social or physical survival.  Disturbance to the social attachment system causes PANIC in animals.  There are three other emotional systems that are age and gender specific according to Dr. Panksepp.  LUST is sex and sexual desire, as opposed to a more generalized form of desire.  Maternal love and responsibilities with respect to their offspring is CARING.  PLAY is not well understood either in terms of relevant brain region or psychological nature. 

Grandin and Johnson restrict their discussion of animal emotions to the four more general blue ribbon emotions.  They identify SEEKING as a positive emotion for animals, which should be evoked as often as possible.  They designate FEAR, PANIC, and RAGE as negative emotions to be activated as rarely as possible.  Their primary assertion is that by the appropriate manipulation of emotions; it is possible to make an animal happy.  This argument is applied to a variety of animals including household pets, farm animals, and wild animals in the course of “Animals Make Us Human.” Johnson and Grandin posit a direct relationship between an animal’s emotions and their behavior.  Therefore, it is possible to extrapolate an animal’s emotional state from their behavior.  Stereotypies are a deviation from normal behavior indicative of mental discomfort in animals.  More specifically, stereotypies are abnormal, repetitive, invariant behaviors that appear to be purposeless.  Grandin and Johnson argue that, “[a]nimals don’t have purely behavioral needs, and if an animal expresses normal behavior in an abnormal environment, its welfare may be poor,” (1, p5).  They explain the digging behavior of gerbils as an attempt to create a cover for hiding.  An experiment by Christoph Wiedenmayer revealed that gerbils do not dig if presented with a suitable shelter in their cages.  These results indicate that digging behavior, in gerbils, is expressive of a desire for an underground refuge and not about the act of digging.  The behavior is repeated because the desired end, a tunnel, is not achieved. 

While I appreciate the close correspondence between blue ribbon emotions and animal science, I am curious to see if Grandin and Johnson’s theories could be combined with a different neurobiological platform.  I would like to try to map their theory onto the bipartite model of the brain developed in my neurobiology course by Dr. Grobstein. (2) The bipartite brain consists of two components the cognitive unconscious and the storyteller.  The cognitive unconscious is the portion responsible for interacting with the external world, multitasking, and making pragmatic decisions.  The storyteller element involves the concepts agency, free will, creativity, and analysis.  The storyteller is located in the neocortex, an area of the brain that is an evolutionarily recent addition, shared by humans and other mammals.  Different unconscious inputs affect the narrative constructed by the storyteller that influences animal behavior.  Therefore, I would like to propose a theory first presented by Dr. Grobstein, that the brain is equivalent to behavior.  This theory is similar to Dr. Panksepp’s in its recognition of a correlation between neurobiology and behavioral studies; however, it includes the entire brain as opposed to specific functions, blue ribbon emotions. 

Exploring behavior in terms of the entire brain could yield a new and interesting story.  Differences in perception result in different raw materials for the act of story construction by the storyteller.  One converse of this statement is that different stories imply different interactions with the external world.  Since horses have a different sort of vision from humans; they are much more sensitive to movement.  Monty Roberts a respected practitioner of natural horsemanship claims that he sees “in a way most others d[o] not-that [he] perceived movement more clearly and from a far greater distance, and that [he] could see better at night,” (3,  p124).  I suspect that his special visual perception facilitated his unusual capacity for understanding and training horses.  His perceptions of the world are more similar to horses’ than most humans. 

An alternative perspective is that the style of storytelling humans and animals, most commonly use, are significantly different.  Temple Grandin describes the nature of her memory, or stories of her own experiences, as graphic or imagery based.  Her brain relies less on language and verbal stories than images and photographs.  Images and photographs are a more precise method of recording details.  They are less adaptable to conveying abstract or generalized information.  (1, p243)  This might provide some insight into the phenomenon of a horse freaking out at the sight of flowers planted in front of the barn door.  The brightly colored plants are a new detail that can not be incorporated into the old image of the barn.  The building is therefore unrecognizable and strange, a scary place to the animal.  Humans more broad description of a stable door should better tolerate minor changes in appearance.  Therefore, the different storytelling style of horses can result in behavior that is counter-intuitive or surprising to humans. 

I suspect that the relationship between animal brains and behavior both farther ranging and more complicated than the theory that Grandin and Johnson present.  Dr. Grobstein’s story of the bipartite brain is one potential direction for exploration.  However, Grandin and Johnson’s story is an excellent place to begin with plenty of relevant observations and insights.

Works Cited
1.)    Grandin, T., Johnson, C., "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals". Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009
2.)    Grobstein, P., “Neurobiology and the Brain 2009 course notes.” 2009 /exchange/courses/bio202/s09/notes
3.)    Roberts, M., "The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer". Ballantine Books New York: 1999


Paul Grobstein's picture

Human and non-human brains and happiness

There's an assumption being made that many animals, like humans, have a significant story telling component to their brain.  Is that defensible?