Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Behaving Like Animals

: Do we share some of our best deeds with animals?

Earlier this summer, I watched a pair of robins build a nest and care for their young in the holly bush right outside my study window. It was impressive to see them feed their chicks, carry the poop away from the nest, stay constantly close by, and set off frequent alarm calls. But what really moved me was the way the mother robin had brooded over her eggs. Her patient brooding brought me back to an evening a quarter of a century ago when my son Andy had just turned one, and my husband was away on a trip.

Late that night, Andy started to have trouble breathing so I called the pediatrician’s office and was immediately put through to the doctor on call. He explained that Andy had the croup and described what to do. To help Andy breathe, I had to keep him upright in a very moist environment. So I spent the rest of the night awake in a rocking chair, holding Andy upright in our tiny bedroom with the door closed and the humidifier turned up to the max. I was dripping with sweat, but what I remember most keenly was a feeling – a rare feeling of perfect calmness and clarity. I had no conflicts. There was no place else that I needed to be and nothing else that I needed to do but to hold my baby and listen to him breathe.

We have a love-hate relationship with our feelings. On the one hand, we fool ourselves into thinking that we make decisions based on reason and logic. On the other hand, we honor our nobler emotions, such as love and empathy. As I watched the robin sit for hours on her eggs or spread her wings to protect her young during a rainstorm, I wandered if she experienced the same sense of calmness and singleness of purpose that I had during that night when Andy first had the croup. Some would say I’m just being anthropomorphic. Perhaps, they’re right. But, if strong emotions made me a better parent, wouldn’t they also help a robin or any other animal who must put in great effort to nurture their young?

If you are intrigued by the mental and emotional life of animals and also the shared feelings and rapport that can develop between people and animals, read Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke. The book just came out, and I just finished reading it – a remarkable story of elephants and a man who understood them.

 

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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