Fresh Ideas: Getting perspective on humans

Whenever I’m disillusioned by human behavior (this past year in particular), I find solace reading about animals.

One of the most inspiring books for me is Carl Safina’s “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.” Safina is an endowed professor for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University where he co-chairs the steering committee of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. His writing has appeared in National Geographic, Audubon and other periodicals as well as on the web.

We tend to think only humans have “consciousness,” a mind, not simply a brain. But Safina points out honeybees, for instance, with “one million brain cells,” recognize patterns, scents, and colors in flowers and remember their locations. What’s more, their “waggle dance” informs their hive mates where, and how far they need to go, as well as convey the “richness” of nectar they’ve found. That waggle dance will also reveal whether there was any trouble at that flower source (a predatory spider, maybe), or other competitors. Honeybees also show mood changes (a sense of “pessimism”) if they’ve suffered a traumatic event (their hive collapsing). Certain wasps, for instance, can even recognize individuals by their faces. Oliver Sacks, the revered neurologist, concludes, “Insects can remember, learn, think, and communicate in quite rich and unexpected ways.”

Even octopuses, who are mollusks, have nervous systems capable of consciousness. In fact, they use tools and solve problems as ably as most apes. Safina quotes the scientist Christof Koch: “Whatever consciousness is — however it relates to the brain — dogs, birds, and legions of other species have it ... They, too, experience life.”

Safina takes it further yet, pointing out plants have reportedly responded to the recorded sound of a munching caterpillar by producing more defensive chemicals. Plants attacked by insects and herbivores also emit “distress” chemicals, causing leaves and plants nearby to also mount chemical or textural defenses, alerting insect-killing wasps to move in, blunting the attack.

Brain scans of elephants as well as mice reveal emotions we tend to think of as human — sadness, happiness, rage, fear, hunger, thirst — are generated in “deep and very ancient circuits of the brain,” according to another neurologist, Jaak Panksepp. Rage, for instance, is produced in the same parts of the brains of a cat as a human.

Additional evidence of similar experience for animals and humans is how both respond to mood-altering drugs. Rats can become addicted to the same drugs as humans; dogs display obsessive-compulsive behaviors and respond to the same meds as humans to control it. Crayfish, for instance, will hide for a long time after getting a mild electric shock and their system will show an elevated level of serotonin, indicating clinical anxiety. When given a drug (chlordiazepoxide) used to control anxiety in humans to these crayfish, they resumed normal crayfish activities.

Crayfish aren’t the only ones to exhibit anxiety. Zebra fish do as well, in the form of erratic swimming and reduced exploration. Situations that cause pain for fish are tracked to “significant activity” in the fish forebrain “which is highly reminiscent of that observed in humans,” researcher Cullum Brown tells us.

This resemblance between basic animal and human emotions seems to come as a surprise to us, Safina says, but it shouldn’t, because we (animals and humans) have inherited what he says are “very ancient” emotional systems. The genes, he says, that cause our own bodies to create the brain hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, date back at least 700 million years.

Lest we get too full of ourselves, remember even worms’ nerves have “connectivity patterns also found in the human brain.”

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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