General Question

whackyrusty's avatar

Do Penguins go insane?

Asked by whackyrusty (763points) February 8th, 2009

Hear me out. I just finished watching Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World, about Antarctica and its quirky community of scientists and researchers.

Anyway, there’s a really poignant and sad scene in which Werner is discussing the Penguin colonies with one of the experts—who seems a little off the rails himself, incidentally—and the camera cuts to a group of Penguins heading for the open water (which is still a long way off). Most of them continue on to their destination while one of them turns around and heads back to the feeding grounds. That’s fine, he bottled it.

The Penguin in question, however, is the one that stopped right in the middle and neither carried on or turned back. He simply stood there seemingly undecided or confused. He looks in both directions then shortly after decides to go a completely different course – directly towards the mountains ...and certain death.

The expert insisted that even if they were to go and bring him back to the colony, he would still set off and head for the mountains. I just thought this was really sad.

Why did the Penguin do this? Was it confusion/insanity, or something else? Any thoughts?

You’ll have to excuse the excessive post. That scene just really got my attention.

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29 Answers

AstroChuck's avatar

I have no freakin’ idea but I love the question.

Joker was crazy. Two-face as well. Why not the Penguin too?

KrystaElyse's avatar

Wow, I just found the clip you are referring to – here
I’m not quite sure why the penguin decided to head off to the mountains and not back to the colony, I really would like to know that answer as well!

This makes me sad. I wouldn’t be able to let the penguin go off on its own :(

LostInParadise's avatar

Penguins do not reason out what they do. They act largely out of instinct. This one apparently got its wires crossed, so to speak.

AstroChuck's avatar

Penguins have wires? Wow. I learn all kinds of things on fluther!

eponymoushipster's avatar

Some animals choose to go off on their own to die, seemingly knowing their time is short. Perhaps this penguin knew his ticker had tocked it’s last, and was heading off to die.

AstroChuck's avatar

Kind of like a whale beaching itself, perhaps.

eponymoushipster's avatar

@KrystaElyse yeah, it’s sad, but even domesticated animals (dogs, cats, etc) will do that.

KrystaElyse's avatar

Wow, I didn’t know that either… =/

eponymoushipster's avatar

@KrystaElyse i mean, it’s not a hard and fast thing. Obviously, if Fluffy was a housecat and now has kitty arthritis (or Feline AIDS, the No1 killer of housecats), there’s less of a chance. But I had a friend who’s dog was sick, just up and left.

Jeruba's avatar

Maybe insanity is what you call it. Some members of a species simply do not follow the program of the rest of the species. One, for instance, might think, “What if I use this stick to make marks in the sand?” or “Shall I see what happens if I invite the lightning bolt to follow this string?” Maybe one looks up at the stars and asks, “What if we could go there?” Is this insanity? For most divergent thinkers, things don’t work out. We find places to put them. But for some—glory.

Jack79's avatar

The penguin in question obviously felt that this was the right course of action, in the same way that “insane” people make perfect sense to themselves (there was a discussion about “Revolutionary Road” here recently that tackled that). In the USSR, whoever did not believe that Communism was perfect, was considered insane and locked up. So by that definition, yes, the penguin is insane because it doesn’t act like everybody else.

Medically speaking however, psychologists do not consider animals to have a psyche, or soul (I think this derives from religious beliefs however). Animals are supposedly driven by instincts, not coherent thoughts. I personally beg to differ, but that’s the official theory. And a penguin therefore could never suffer from any sort of mental illness. Any differences in behaviour should be seen as differences in the animal’s own instinct or a false interpretation of its surroundings (ie the penguin thought the sea was towards the mountains).

DrBill's avatar

Any creature that can think, can go insane. This is a brain condition we have not yet found a cause or cure for.

Most animals in the wild have a graveyard of sorts, and will try to get there if they are dying and still able.

90s_kid's avatar

Imagine what would happen if Happy Feet went insane?

jbfletcherfan's avatar

I don’t know if penguins go insane, but I DO know that squirrels go nuts!!!

Sakata's avatar

@AC: Damn you for you 1st comment. Twas perfect

@epony: I believe your answers are the most correct.

@Jack: I’m with you. I love how science lets religion sway their theories on things.
.....“Animals have no soul.”
.....“Why not?”
.....“Because they don’t believe in God.”
..Yea, real scientific there. I honestly believe that if we have souls then dolphins have souls.

@The Kid: I was so gonna say Happy Feet, good call, but I was gonna use it in response to Jeruba’s answer..

Jayne's avatar

I’m pretty sure that scientific theory does not recognize a soul in any animal, even humans. They do, I believe, make the distinction between conscious and unconscious thought, which is somewhat fuzzy due to the fact that most of our decisions are made instinctively, and then justified. But the ability to follow an extended logical extrapolation through the use of language or some other learned construct does seem a good place to start, and I am aware of no evidence that other animals do that. Feel free to correct me though.

Jack79's avatar

I referred to “soul” because even though in English we use both words, the original meaning of “psyche” is “soul” (there is only one word in Greek). Therefore the science of “psychology” is by definition the study of one’s soul (from psyche=soul and logos=domain in this context).

I personally believe that psychologists simply avoid taking animals seriously because most of their theories and practices would go out the window. How can you psychoanalyse a dolphin for example? It’s too big to fit in your couch, it would die outside water, and above all it can’t talk to you about its childhood, because even if it did you’d have no way of understanding what it said. So you just stick to humans instead ;)

Jayne's avatar

Yep. I certainly have more respect for neuroscience than for psychology, because while the direct study of the brain is not yet able to give answers as satisfying as psychology can offer up, I believe it will ultimately prove more fruitful through its emphasis on rigor. I certainly subscribe to the reductionist claim that the physics of the brain does account for all that we consider ‘human’. But perhaps I am not giving psychologists their due; I don’t know enough about the discipline to go much beyond stereotypes.

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janbb's avatar

It would seem to me that animals might get a sort of alzheimer’s since that is a physiological change in the brain, and thus act counter to the flock. Hence the wandering off toward the mountain.

Anothe explanation is that this penguin was either the Moses or the Wrong Way Corrigan of the flock. Did he come back witha tablet of 10 Penguin Commandments; i.e., “Thou Shalt Not Peck Thy Neighbor to Death?”

mea05key's avatar

he’s probably on some mission. To that penguin, he might think that humans are insane for trying to stop him from doing whatever hes suppose to do. If penguins are able to log into fluther, they might complain about how insane human can be.

Jeruba's avatar

@Jack79, I have to question your reasoning here:

> I referred to “soul” because even though in English we use both words, the original meaning of “psyche” is “soul” (there is only one word in Greek). Therefore the science of “psychology” is by definition the study of one’s soul (from psyche=soul and logos=domain in this context).

Your “therefore” is a pretty big leap. It confuses derivation with definition. The fact that a Greek word was used to form the name of the new science does not prove that psychology is about the soul. In fact the Greek word psyche means “soul, mind, spirit, breath, life” and comes from psychein, “to breathe, blow.” [Source: The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.] Maybe what this proves is that psychology is about breathing? Actually it is no more logical to say that this source of the word means that “psychology” is by definition about the soul than it is to say that “politics” is by definition about cities and not nations (or offices) just because its source is the Greek word polis, “city.”

fundevogel's avatar

honestly I think humans and animals have a lot in common, after all humans are just animals with bigger brains. And people who have studied groups of animals like chimps and elephants had discovered the complex social systems at work. And any time complex social systems and behavioral norms are present at some point there will be an individual that doesn’t quite fit into those systems and norms.

When Jane Goodall studied her apes, she witnessed a mother and daughter pair (Passion and Pom), the social pariahs of the group, kidnap and cannibalize a new born baby. They are thought to have killed at least five infants. That was a violation the behavioral code of the community and just one sign of how one crazy mother was not only unable to live within her group, but was also unable to teach her daughter how to do so.

So yes, I think there are plenty of animals that do think, or at least learn behavior. And any time behavior isn’t completely automated there is the possibility of aberrant conduct, ie insanity or, in less drastic cases, non conformity.

Jayne's avatar

Certainly there is complex behavior and variation within that behavior that seems to deserve the label of thought; that is why the line between the conscious and unconscious mind is fuzzy, even ambiguous. However, there are amazingly complex system that can operate even if the participants follow only simple rules, and new behavior can be learned within the framework of old instincts. Arguably, this is the case for humans, as well, but the difference, although still somewhat ill-defined, is that we used our instincts to build an entirely new framework of logic, language, and recognition of self, and then used that framework to extrapolate new behaviors; an extended, two-step process of abstract cognition rather than a direct derivation from instinct. It is still somewhat arbitrary, of course, but if we are to define amoeba as unthinking, and humans as thinking, we must draw the line somewhere. However, there are definite similarities between the results of these two systems, because the downside of abstract thought is that it is slow, and so we still resort to instinct much more than we would like to think. Insofar as aberration is concerned, lack of automation is not even required; systems often have glitches.

Sakata's avatar

Wow these are some BIG answers. I, personally, still like AC’s 1st response. But that’s just me.

nebule's avatar

I would really like to think that it’s not because they’re insane at all but some secret sense of purpose that penguins have that we humans couldn’t possible begin to comprehend

Palindrome's avatar

I love penguins. Amazingly adorable creatures they are. I personally agree with Jack79.

Ladymia69's avatar

This is a fascinating conversation! Especially since I just saw the movie yesterday…however, I think we are all probably going to be in the dark about this one, which hurts, because I really wish I knew why that little penguin decided to head to the mountains.

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