How similar is equine thinking compared to ours, is a common thread running through many articles on animal behaviour and animal-human relationships. Most owners feel a greater contact with their animals because they give their pets at least some human thinking abilities and our close proximity to our pets actively encourages it. So, there is deep interest and investment in demonstrating how similar animal thinking is to our human capabilities. Don’t get me wrong I think it is important to understand the ways animals think. However, I do believe we come at the whole question of how animals think from the wrong end. Instead of can animals think like us it would be better to ask how can we think like our animals?
Anthropomorphism is the process of giving non human objects human emotions. We pat the car we have given a name as it starts on a cold morning or we blame the washing machine for breaking down just when we needed it most, as if in some way it had chosen to let us down deliberately. It is difficult not to anthropomorphise with animals, after all most of us spend our early years watching mice that fall in love, cats that hold vendettas against mice, rabbits that problem solve, dogs that can talk and birds that are jealous and vain. Yes, Mr Disney surely knew what he was doing when he created the cartoon animals that were almost human. Perhaps he knew how much we would connect with those crazy critters if he made them just human enough that we could identify in them all our own emotions, but we could laugh at them because they were animals.
If we give our pets human emotions through the process of anthropomorphism, then we run the real risk of attributing our flawed thinking to our pets and, in my experience human thinking is often flawed. We struggle with complex emotions such as jealousy because we gain pleasure or even happiness from possession of inanimate objects. Sometimes we mistakenly believe those possessions are other people and act with anger if other people take an interest in our supposed possessions. We want what other people have, even when we already have all we need and so greed is born. We are vain, our appearance can determine our happiness, with humans having the ability through self loathing to starve or eat themselves to death because our image of ourselves in not real.
Hundreds of thousands of books, workshops and training sessions are delivered world wide every year on self help. All with the aim of improving our self esteem, creating happiness, reducing stress and managing anger not to mention the massive market for relationship counselling and advice. Through spiritual leaders we have seen that spiritual practises such as Buddhism require a life time of work to control our thoughts. If our human thinking was the shining beacon that we believe it is, these books, lessons and coaches wouldn’t be needed or at least in less volume.
We lie to ourselves that we are the top of the IQ tree. Well we set the tests, so I guess we would do pretty well wouldn’t we? Yet our brains in terms of evolution have been developing for a relatively short time and the brain of the modern man from hunter gatherer to I T business whiz kid has only had about 100,000 years to evolve, no wonder we struggle to use this supper powerful personal computer.
Without practise and considerable effort our ability to understand our own thinking is limited, yet we do have the ability to understand that other humans are and do experience similar emotions to us. We have what is known as an understanding of self. Certain functions we take for granted as adults have not always been with us as children. We develop conscious memory from the age of about three when the hippocampus, part of the brain that lays down long term conscious memory matures. As the brain begins to develop new parts of the brain come online, which is why peek-a-boo is such an entertaining game for babies. As the parietal cortex starts to work we become aware of fundamental spatial qualities of the world and we know faces can not just disappear but the modules of the brain that tell us where the face goes have not yet matured. Then between the ages of eighteen months to two years we develop self-consciousness we no longer point at our reflection in the mirror as if it were another child we instead begin to recognise what we see as us, we develop the sense of I that most people feel in their heads.
Do animals develop this sense of I? Well there is some evidence to suggest that some may do, the great apes, an occasional elephant and a crow perhaps, but I am not sure we really know. Some researchers say animals do not have this sense others say that they do and some say the tests that are used are not a understanding of self just the ability to understand the concept of mirrors. Yet we pet owners commonly believe that our pets can understand our complex emotions. A common statement I hear is from the dog owner, who on returning home to finds their dog has disgraced themselves in some way and claims the dog knows they have done wrong, they can see by their dogs behaviour that they are feeling guilty for letting the owner down. The dog shows signs of submission or hides away and this is seen by the owner as an acceptance of guilt. Well may be or may be not, perhaps the dog is simply offering what they see as the appropriate behaviour for the situation. The dog’s behaviour is not related to what they may have done sometime before but rather the body language and vocal tones of their human companion at that moment. Having learnt the human signs of anger and discovered that appeasement or avoidance are the best method to avoid trouble the dog may simply be offering what it considers appropriate behaviour for the human behaviour they see. They do not have to be able to understand the owner is angry or upset they may simply read the body language and be conditioned to avoid conflict that they know follows this body language. May be they always adopt submissive behaviour on the owners return and sometimes the owner can attribute this to a misdemeanour? This behaviour in the dog is not any less incredible for not being attributed with thinking like a human, to my mind it is a testament to their learning ability and perceptual skills that allows them to read us humans and act accordingly.
I am often asked how intelligent is a horse or a donkey and is it true that a mule is more intelligent than both. To be honest, I don’t believe it is important to measure or compare animal IQ. A horse is good at being a horse and while it might not do well on a human IQ test, if we dump a horse and a human in 100,000 acres of wildness and leave them for a couple of months the horse will have far better chance of survival than the human, so who is the smartest in that situation?
All have animals have mental abilities that we can measure such as memory, reasoning, problem solving etc. Providing the tests are related to the animal’s innate abilities then we will have a pretty good idea of what they are capable. Dogs may innately be better at problem solving due to the evolutionary ancestors pack hunting skills and association with man but are they anywhere near the capabilities of the human brain, unlikely. This doesn’t mean they are not smart, just that they are not human.
Imagine two Zebras, George and Graham we will call them just to anthropomorphise a little, grazing along side each other on the plains of Africa as the sun comes up. A sudden ambush by a pride of lions, a moment of panic and a short chase sees Graham becoming lion breakfast. How does George respond? Well if he was human he would spend most of the rest of the day telling all the other Zebras what had happened and how it could have been him and thinking to himself what if I had been closer it would have been me or perhaps suffering the guilt of having survived when his friend did not, pretty soon he would have an ulcer from all the worry and “what ifs”. Fortunately, George is a Zebra and while being physiologically stressed by the attack and perhaps even feeling some sense of absence or loss he is soon back in the moment concentrating on eating and surviving and avoiding lions just as he was before the attack, and that’s why Zebra’s who lead such stressful lives don’t get ulcers. Yes of course, change their environment to a zoo and confine them and the environmental stress might give then ulcers but not in the wild.
Animals have a simplistic uncluttered thinking that is not judgemental, doesn’t blame everyone else for their problems and they are capable of learning. However, even our closest relative the chimpanzee can take up to seven years to fully learn the art of cracking a nut with a stone tool. I am not saying animals are not sentient beings or capable of emotions far from it, but rather that humans are overly complicated creatures that are not yet well adapted to their environment and far from in control of their massive brains.
Trying to label how an animal thinks is like trying to describe the sensation of meditation if you have never meditated. We may have a knowledge of what meditation may be, we can use words like peaceful, calm, relaxed and focus yet these words describe only states of mind, they don’t add up to the experience of meditation. The only way to know what meditation is like is to practise meditation. The only way to know what it is like to be an animal is to be an animal. As that is unlikely to happen, no matter how hard we try, we can only experience their world through our senses and label what we believe they feel like.
The problem with giving human emotions to animals is not that may or may not experience human emotions as scientists continue to debate, but that the general human way of thinking is flawed. Our thinking is sometimes controlled by ego, the conditioning of our parents during childhoods and our evolution. So to label an animal as jealous, naughty or deceitful are faults of the human mind not of the animal mind. We can spend a life time thinking back to past injustices or panicking about our future. Do animals think “if only my mum had loved me more when I was a puppy!” probably not. Their behaviour may be effected if they were weaned to young or not socialised but that is their behaviour.
By way of example about the difference between dog and human thinking. Say we have a rescue Labrador who has previously been starved. Humans may imagine how they would react and behave had they been treated in a similar way and think how terrible that is and accept him always scavenging for food. Others will say dogs live in the moment and it doesn’t matter what happened in the past so don’t allow him to get away with that behaviour. The truth is perhaps some where between the two. The dog that has had bad experience will have had the connections in the brain changed as a result of that experience and those changes influence future behaviour, but the dog is not constantly thinking back to being starved and worrying that might happen again, as a human might do. They may have a higher motivation for food but their behaviour is not driven by fear of not being fed again it is influenced by the neural connections made earlier in their life. If this wasn’t the case the dog would have a very sort memory and forget everything they learned just moments before, this is not the case, nor is it the case that they are thinking back to when they were starving because as soon as they realised that food was regular and readily available they would reason that they no longer had to rush their food and scavenge.
A horse is not intrinsically good or bad it is just a horse. To one person a horse that kicks is disrespectful and naughty to another they are just communicating their fear and to the horse, well they are just being a horse. It is our perception and labelling that determines if a behaviour is good or bad without humans to judge there is no good or bad, just behaviour. Our own beliefs colour our perceptions and judgements which go on to influence our actions. We see our pets not as they are but as we are, until we understand the true nature of animals and the true nature of ourselves we cannot hope to improve our training and handling or our pets. When we label our animal with a negative human emotion we and other humans then treat the animal according to the label we have given it, and this then negatively influences the behaviour of the animal.
A horse is just a horse, surviving, breathing, feeding, reproducing and socializing not good or bad those are our human judgements. Once you understand this you remove incorrect thinking from ourselves and free ourselves from the turmoil of perception of bad and good, past and future and you can work in the moment. When these powerful human emotions negative or positive are removed you can see things as they truly are, you can act based on behaviour not emotional response to behaviour.
To best help our animals we don’t need to believe they think like us, we need instead to learn to think with their brains. When we do this, we truly open up the possibilities of communicating fully with our animals, without the transference of our mistaken human judgements and the burdens on the animal of our flawed emotional states and, we see them as they are not furry humans but independent individuals dissevering of our respect not our judgement.
By Ben Hart
(Thank you to Ben for an interesting article. Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to firstname.lastname@example.org. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)