Michael Jawer

Michael Jawer

Feeling Too Much

Living Closer to the Bone (Part 2)

There’s good reason to believe that non-human animals – mammals at least – feel.

Posted Jul 27, 2015

In my last post, I cited Jaak Panksepp of the University of Washington – an authority on the neurobiology of emotion – stating that “the evidence is now inescapable: at the basic emotional level, all mammals are remarkably similar.”  

His conclusion is based on several factors.  First, biochemicals such as oxytocin, epinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine – which manifestly influence human feelings – are found in other animals, too.  Second, the more primitive parts of the human brain, including the limbic portion that mediates feeling, have their counterparts in other animals’ craniums and nervous systems.  Third is the existence of mirror neurons – cells in the brain that fire in response to the same actions one has performed being performed by someone else.  Mirror neurons play a key role in empathy, and they function not just in humans but in other species ranging from monkeys to mice.  Fourth, most mammals are social creatures – and if an individual is going to live with others, it’s very useful to have feelings.  Getting along, after all, involves communicating key messages as well as the ability to decode the essential messages others are sending you.  

There’s one additional reason to infer that animals feel.  The brain, over millions of years of evolution – both in humans and in vertebrates – grew from the bottom up, with its higher, thinking centers developing out of lower, more ancient parts.  As Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, points out, “There was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one."  The parallel to non-human animals should be clear.

Incidentally, Voltaire, the 18th century French writer and philosopher – who did not have the advantage of modern brain science – was typically outspoken on the subject of animal feelings.  He addressed himself to “you who believe that animals are only machines.  Has nature arranged for [an] animal to have all the machinery of feelings only in order for it not to have any at all?”  

Less than 100 years later, Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, boldly speculated on the range of feelings animals may possess.  Today, evolutionary and behavioral scientists are giving credence to what he observed and intuited.  Evidence has accumulated of many species (dolphins, dogs, wolves, horses, chimpanzees, sea lions, baboons, elephants) feeling sorrow, grief or dejection, parrots being cranky, rhinos and elks experiencing joy, monkeys expressing anger, falcons seeming disconsolate, chickens becoming saddened, and pigs being terrified.  Elephants may even understand – and be moved by – the concept of death.  Indeed, scholars consider elephants the ‘poster species’ for animal emotions.  Studies indicate with a fair degree of certainty that they have intense experiences comparable to human feelings of joy, anger, love, exuberance, delight, compassion, sorrow, and grief. 

Even the lowly lab rat most likely feels.  Experiments have shown that rats become agitated when seeing surgery performed on other rats and that, when presented with a trapped lab-mate and a piece of chocolate, they will free their caged brethren before eating.  Panksepp has even produced evidence that, when tickled, rats laugh – they emit ultrasonic chirps.  Many of them clearly want to be tickled more, following researchers’ hands and playfully nipping as in a game.  “Every possible measure of whether they like it shows yes, they love it,” observed Panksepp.  (You can see a short video here.)

Panksepp’s view is that all mammals are “brothers and sisters under the skin” since we share the same fundamental neurology and physiology.  He further believes that, once we understand the nature of other animals’ feelings, “we will finally understand ourselves.”  
Panskepp is undoubtedly correct.  As this series continues, I’ll explore how much more there is to understand, in both other animals and within ourselves.


“'Alex and Me': The Hidden World of Animal Minds.” November 12, 2008. NPR Books, National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96897162.

Bekoff, Marc. “The Emotional Lives of Animals.” YES! Magazine. March 2, 2011. http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/can-animals-save-us/we-second-that-emotion.

Bekoff, Marc. The Emotional Lives of Animals. Novato, California: New World Library, 2007.

Bekoff, Marc (ed.), The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions. New York: Discovery Books, 2000.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. 

Keim, Brandon. “Being a Sandpiper.” Aeon. July 2, 2013. http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/the-science-of-animal-consciousness/.

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff and Susan McCarthy. When Elephants Weep. New York: Delacorte Press, 1995.

“The Science of Emotions: Jaak Panksepp at TEDxRainier.” Tedx Talks, January 13, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65e2qScV_K8.

Wise, Stephen M. Drawing the Line. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 2002.

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