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The Historical Perspective

Ask most pet owners how they think their pet feels and they’ll answer with terms like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’ and so on, endowing on them a state of consciousness. I use the term ‘consciousness’ here as the ability to experience internal, personal subjective experiences, or ‘feelings’ such as sadness, joy, happiness, fear, anger, etc.

In the 19th century the study of consciousness was considered an integral part of scientific endeavour and even eminent scientists such as Charles Darwin and William James took it as read that ‘feelings’ were not unique to human beings. It might therefore come as a surprise, even a shock for most pet owners to realise that the current generally accepted consensus among neuroscientists working with human and/or non-human subjects is that only humans are conscious (see Consciousness and Emotions).

The dying years of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th century was a time of great scientific endeavour when ‘proper’ sciences like medicine, physics, chemistry and engineering were on the ascendant. On the other hand psychology, and its association with mental processes, was sidelined and largely ignored, and the study of consciousness became a taboo.

The work of Ivan Pavlov on stimulus-response conditioning was very much in tune with the times, and in an attempt to elevate psychology into a mainstream science, John Watson spearheaded the behaviourist movement.

In 1913 Watson published a groundbreaking paper in the journal Psychological Review called 'Psychology as the behaviorist views it' (aka the 'behaviourists manifesto'). In this paper he challenged fellow psychologists to...

“throw off the yoke of consciousness”,

...suggesting that concerning ones self with such vagaries as consciousness, mind, emotions and feelings had failed psychology...

“as an experimental discipline to make its place in the world as an undisputed natural science”.

He called upon his colleagues...

“never to use terms like consciousness, mental states, mind and the like”,

...and to concentrate on behaviour only, as this could be seen, measured and verified. Watson saw behaviour as an exclusively physical, mechanical, stimulus-response phenomenon, and anything else that went on in the “black box” of the mind should be ignored as irrelevant background “noise”.

Frederic Skinner’s (another staunch proponent of behaviourism) seminal work on reinforcement learning in the 1940s’ and 50s’ followed very much along the same mechanistic line, as has the rest of mainstream science ever since.

Over the last 25 years, neuroscientists have contributed vast amounts of information on emotional learning, and fear conditioning is one of the most extensively studied phenomena in neurophysiology. The question arises as to whether non-human animals EXPERIENCE fear, that is, do they have the same aversive internal mental FEELINGS as humans that accompany the obvious behavioural response, such as a dog fearful of thunder?

The ‘stock’ answer is that they don’t!

Some scientists still argue that when you see your dog hiding under the sofa shivering with fear, you’re witnessing an emotional behaviour, a very different thing from an emotional feeling that arises from higher brain centres that only humans have.

This stubborn lack of acceptance by some sectors of the scientific community, that only humans experience subjective emotional states, is in no small part due to the Pandora’s box of welfare and ethical issues that would arise if one was to accept that lab animals experienced feelings not unlike some of our own.

Over the last decade or so there has been a growing number of eminent scientists challenging this belief and there is now indisputable evidence that in fact, all mammals have rich and varied emotional lives (see Our Emotional Pets). It now appears that rather than being a recent development of the human neo-cortex, the roots of consciousness can be traced right back to early mammals in deep, ancient sub-neocortical limbic regions of the brain. And it is in these brain regions that basic feelings such as fear, loneliness, happiness, sadness, anger and lust arise. This evidence now strongly suggests that, far from being irrelevant background “noise”, these basic emotions evolved as integral and essential parts of the animal’s ‘learning apparatus’.

What a dog, or cat, or any other mammal FEELS is an essential part of what he learns.

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