Vint Virga DVM, DACVB

The Soul of All Living Creatures

Where Our Brain Ends and Our Mind Begins

Are animals' psyches all that different from humans'?

Posted Sep 20, 2015

irishwildcat / Creative Commons
Source: irishwildcat / Creative Commons

Observing routine human behavior as much as I do in the course of my work, I find it interesting how often we treat our minds and bodies as if they were separate.   From health insurers to friends and neighbors, I cannot help but notice how we tend to set apart mental illness as essentially different from other diseases.  It is easy to think of our neighbor stricken with cancer as a hapless victim.  Yet, our colleague at work struggling through years of depression, many look at as, somehow, bearing a stigma. 

     This mindset is no different toward animals.  A cat disfigured with gnarled, crusty ears and scabby, cankered lips from pemphigus (a disfiguring disease in which the immune system decides to attack the body’s own cells) is tenderly coddled by all in his family.  Yet, another cat with a bald, bleeding tail who manically chases and gnaws it for hours is watched by her family with a certain reserve and, not infrequently, even disdain.  Listening to my client’s tales, a common theme arises.   People, by their nature, identify with their animal’s behavior and often, in doing so, relate to it just as they do with humans.

     Certainly, we can influence what happens in our bodies but, all in all, we cannot direct our cells’ and tissues’ functions.  To a large degree, they are governed by factors beyond our control: genetics, physiology, and the environment, to name a few.  In health as well as disease, our cells follow their own destiny.  Just as our hepatocytes can unwittingly go haywire, oozing streams of enzymes which run amuck inside our bellies, so can our neurons bungle how they communicate.  When neurons and their connections malfunction, our senses, feelings, memories, and thoughts can wander, sometimes far off course.

     In spite of all we now know, or think we know, about our brains, we still have yet to understand so many fundamental questions.  How does a bundle of cells give birth to thoughts and feelings?  How do tiny waves of chemicals transform into a cherished memory?  Why can a swell of emotions sway what we perceive and think?  How can a cluster of neurons instinctively sense that we are in danger, in spite of everything that our eyes and ears may tell us?

    The question of where our brain ends and where our mind begins remains as much a mystery to scientists as peasants.  The brain, of course, is made from matter: atoms and molecules which make up cells and the sea of chemicals within and around them.  In contrast, the mind is bodiless: a hazy, mysterious energy field made up of hopes and fears, thoughts and feelings, ideas and memories, wishes and dreams.  How does matter manifest the abstract?

     C. H. Vanderwolf, the esteemed neuroscientist, notes:

“The conventional theory of the brain as the organ of the psyche or mind offers us the comforting illusion that we already understand the big picture.”

It is naïve to believe that the mind is nothing more than a cellular product.  Without a doubt, our brain cells, give rise to the energy fields of our minds.  At the very same time, our thoughts, quite literally, mold and rewire our brain.  Each unmistakably shapes and transforms the other. 

As I make my rounds across the zoo, from The Tropics to Australasia, I must constantly bear in mind how the brain differs from species to species.The amount of space within the skull; the size of the centers for vision, smell, and hearing; the surface area of the cortex including all the folds and grooves each reflect specializations in anatomy, but also, function.  These measurements tell me how each species has evolved and adapted from their perspective.  Carnivores, compared to their prey, have proportionally larger brains, presumably empowering them to craft strategies to catch their quarry.  Dogs have a pair of olfactory bulbs that, together, weigh four times those of humans, enabling them to smell secreted pheromones of fear from people.  The area of the brain that integrates sounds is far more developed in dolphins than man, endowing them with the ability to know where they are and see, by sound, beneath the waves.

Mariamichelle / Pixabay
Source: Mariamichelle / Pixabay

     Although monkeys and moon bears surely differ, I am struck far more by their likenesses.  From the thousands of synapses linking each neuron to the nuclei into which they cluster, the anatomy of our brains is remarkably similar from species to species.  Even more striking to me are the likenesses between species’ behaviors.  Regardless of species, we rely on our neurons, second by second, for our very survival.  From humans to apes and dingoes to dogs, our brains help us make sense of the world.  Lights, sounds, smells, textures, and what we notice others doing are received, sorted, processed, and interwoven into a picture.  We respond to this image with our instincts, emotions, thoughts, and actions.

     Teaching is teaching and learning is learning, whether with chimps, raccoons, or beluga whales.  And while I adapt my technique for each species, the principles stay constant.  A wealth of brain research in the past century has granted us amazing insights into the inner workings of animals’ minds.  What these studies reveal, across a wide array of species, is that animals live intensely thoughtful lives.  This research is affirmed every day in my work with patients.  I have no doubt that animals’ neurons are very much the same as ours, constantly generating images, emotions, memories, and thoughts – some trivial, others profound.  Though, perhaps, they may do so a bit differently than you or I may, animals clearly perceive with awareness, think with reflection, and act with intention.  Like we do, they routinely look at their circumstances, as well as those of others, weigh situations, and consider consequences before deciding how they will respond.  Doing so requires attentiveness, forethought, and consideration – all traits shared in common by humans as well as animals.

More Posts