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LostInParadise's avatar

How does the animal mind work?

Asked by LostInParadise (28574points) March 8th, 2009

When we see animal behavior it is difficult not to see it in human terms, but we must remind ourselves that, with a handful of possible exceptions, animals do not have consciousness.

For example, when a male lion takes over a pride, the first thing it does is to kill all the cubs. As cruel as this may seem, from a “selfish gene” point of view this makes perfect sense. But what, if anything, is the lion thinking? Is it just instinct? And even harder to understand is that the lionesses will try to hide their cubs from the male. Is this purely instinctive? Do they in some sense know what the lion is trying to do?

And what about humans? We pride ourselves on our superior brains, but we have instinctive impulses and emotions that must somehow combine with our conscious behavior? For example, although there are many exceptions, there is a tendency for people to prefer their children to step-children. I can point to several instances of this among my relatives. And in all cases there were good “reasons” for the preference. I doubt that anyone consciously thought about the fact that one child was carrying their genes and the other was not.

I ask this more to share my bewilderment than to expect an answer. Our ability to reason and solve problems is quite extraordinary, but just as amazing is the complexity of non-conscious behavior and emotion and how these can tie into our conscious minds.

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11 Answers

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

Everything was programmed this way by an enigmatic genius.

Harp's avatar

I suppose one way to conceive of the animal mind would be to first look at how self-awareness shapes our own minds.

We spend a great deal of our interior lives displacing ourselves in time. Self-awareness causes us to see ourselves as singular entities moving along life’s timeline like a token on gameboard. We can, and frequently do, mentally slide that token back in time, rehashing past episodes of our lives. Just as frequently, we slide the token forward and imagine ourselves in some future set of circumstances. One could make a convincing case that the past and the future are the creations of our own faculty for self-awareness, having no external reality.

To the extent that most animals don’t harbor this abstracted self, then the present circumstances are the only reality. Their memories are, as far as we can tell, not episodic; in other words, they’re capable of remembering information about their world, but not events. If they find themselves confronted with an object they knew in the past, they can recall what they learned about that object, but will not recall their past encounter with it. Likewise, they will not project themselves into the future, imagining themselves in circumstances yet to be.

Being creatures entirely of the present, instinct becomes the major guiding force. Goals can’t exist without a self. Neither can regrets. The possibility of a different reality than the one right here would never occur to such a mind.

Jayne's avatar

You yourself say that the human mind is often guided by instinct. Indeed, it has been shown that a vast majority of our decisions are made on instinct, and only justified later, although the delay might be on the order of fractions of a second (sorry, I can’t find the actually study for you). Indeed, it would be hard to say where instinct ends and consciousness begins; I would argue that no such line can be drawn, and our higher intelligence simply lies in the fact that we can create an abstract framework, of words, symbols, and logic, to which we can apply that instinct. Yet we have no other guide by which to establish the concepts of thought and consciousness save ourselves; even the Turing test for determining if a machine is ‘intelligent’ depends on the machine’s ability to convince the operator in a blind test that it is human. So if we are the standard of intelligence, but we ourselves are simply governed by a complex class of gut reactions, we could hardly be justified in saying that other animals are not intelligent as well. And yes, this could be extended to the lowest amoeba, exactly because any line that we draw is arbitrary.

marinelife's avatar

First, I disagree that animals are not conscious. I think they are. Their minds work differently from ours, but they are self-aware.

Secondly, animals’ minds have different levels of capability based on their species. Animals perceive things and store things as images rather than words. Although different animals can learn human words.

Dogs can have a human vocabulary of about 200–250 words. Cats it is more like 20–25. Parrots and apes have good vocabulary potential too.

Blondesjon's avatar

I have to agree with Marina on this one. To think that humans are the only self aware creatures on the planet is the height of arrogance. We are simply unable to think outside of a human perspective.

aprilsimnel's avatar

Yes, and note that plenty of human stepfathers try to or actually do kill off children who are not theirs, unfortunately.

Harp's avatar

Self-awareness is probably not a human monopoly, true. If, as has been suggested in some theories of mind, sense of self would arise in any information processing system sufficiently complex to recursively model itself, then we can imagine that the very complex brains of other, non-human animals would do this to some degree. But, given the huge range of animal life, there may not be many brains out there that do this.

As has been mentioned, much of what we do with our own self-awareness is construct a narrative to explain or justify our own instinctive behaviors, and I think we also use a sense of self to explain the behaviors of animals. When @Blondesjohn says “We are simply unable to think outside of a human perspective”, wouldn’t that include interpreting animal behaviors as stemming from self-awareness simply because that’s the way we interpret similar behaviors in ourselves?

I don’t see self-awareness as being an unmitigated blessing by any means. Along with its practical advantages, it carries the seed of our pettiness and our most reprehensible villainies. The stories we tell about ourselves are a function of the cerebral cortex, but underlying this we still have the brains of our less evolved ancestors, essentially an animal brain. We’re capable of seeing past the self story into the present-based and selfless world that all sentient beings share.

wundayatta's avatar

I have had the experience of having chemicals not just change my mood, but they actually change the thoughts I think. Humans are driven by pheromones and genes to engage in behaviors, just as we conceive animals to be.

We’d like to think that somehow we are different. We have reason. We can make choices. It’s scary to think that those choices are really being made by chemical reactions. It makes it seem as if the choices really aren’t choices.

This distinction between “prgramming” and “choice” is not nearly as clear in reality, I believe, as most people want to think. So, yes, we care more about children we are genetically related to than to children who do not carry our genes. We are driven to pass our genes on. And that is part of the behavior.

If we had no such desire, then others, who did have this desire, would have the kids, and we wouldn’t, and our genes would not be passed on, while the genes of people who desired to have children would pass on. Presumably we will become more and more selfish as time goes on.

There is much in our psyches and behavior that we are not aware of. We are only aware of what we are aware of, so that makes it easy to discount our behaviors that result from unconscious behavior.

I believe that the amount of our behavior that is motivated through mechanisms that are not accessible by our consciousnesses is much larger than we currently conceive of. I believe that if you practice stilling your conscious mind, you can become more aware of the way these other, non-concious mechanisms work. There’s a lot that goes on there. A lot!

There’s still more that goes on beyond either conscious and non-conscious thinking. It all combines to make a person, but that person has as much animal nature as any animal, and animals probably have more human nature, in the sense of consciousness, than we would attribute to them.

All I can say it that it really is much more complex than our prejudices would make it out to be.

Jayne's avatar

Hear, hear! It always bewilders me that people can have experienced, or even have heard of, the effects of psychoactive drugs (both legal and illegal), and still believe that our minds are independent of the physics of the brain.

LostInParadise's avatar

Hold on. To say that humans are self-aware is not to say that this awareness resides in a soul or even that it is centrally located in the brain and it certainly does not deny that consiousness is constructed biochemically. And I know that there are those who say that all creatures, including amoebas, have consciousness, but that strikes me as outright silly (no offense).

We can argue over which animals may or may not be self-aware, but as far as I know it is only humans who feel the need to justify their actions in terms of justice and morality. And what interests me is how this sense of fairness plays out against our “lizard brains.”

@daloon, I am not convinced that we will become more selfish. I would like to believe that we will evolve past our sad materialistic culture toward something happier and more spiritual. “You can say that I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one.”

wundayatta's avatar

@LostInParadise: I truly hope you are right. In fact, I had never had that thought before, and I do not necessarily think it is accurate. It seems to me that altruistic tendencies may remain in our gene pool, because they confer a survival advantage on a culture as a whole.

I’ve heard one theory that explains homosexuality that way. We need people around who don’t have kids. They can help others, in teaching roles and in other roles that help parents with their burdens.

I’m not as pessimistic as I may have seemed. I just couldn’t remember the arguments at the time I wrote that last post. Isn’t it ironic that evolution could push us towards both greater selfishness and greater altruism?

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