Well, maybe you always have been and have not been bothered about scientists moaning on that “animals do not have feelings”. But I did a degree in biological sciences and the charge of being anthropomorphic, ascribing “human” feelings to animals, was a serious put down. As I was trying to prove my equal abilities as one of the UK’s first women farm advisers during the 80’s, I had to be careful not to seem “soft”. Simply being a woman doing a man’s job put me under suspicion! “. I was in good company…both Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, studying wild primates, had their work discredited by the charge of anthropomorphism.
It was a scientific taboo, best summed up by this comment from B F Skinner, the “father” of behavioural science:
“The “emotions” are excellent examples of the fictional causes to which we commonly attribute behavior.”
If it looks like a duck…
Or, If your horse looks scared, it probably is.
Due to my concerns about animal welfare I got out of agriculture in 1990. Eight years later I got back into horses for my own pleasure and had no doubt that horses had feelings and, by this time, was bolshy enough to say so. But, still, science was against me and I had many scientific friends so I was glad to come across Marthe Kiley-Worthington in 1999, who gave me the term “conditional anthropomorphism”.
Essentially this says that, if it looks like the animal is sad/happy/fearful etc, by its behaviour, then it is valid to go with those feelings. To do otherwise may result in pain and suffering for the animal, which you wouldn’t inflict if you thought the animal had feelings.
Give Us the Evidence!
No-one in science wants to get too touchy-feely. We need evidence and humans are excellent at seeing patterns where they don’t exist and projecting their own view onto anything…look at Pixar movies, for example, and see how empathic you are to the emotions of Cars or Toys! So we do need to rein ourselves in somehow to try and see clearly, hence Marthe’s term of “conditional anthropomorphism”.
You need some evidence to back up your assertions and an understanding of the particular species you are working with, but in accepting that animals do have emotional lives, we are likely to give them more fulfilling lives in captivity and increase their welfare.
It’s All in The Mind
Marthe effectively breached the walls of my scientific training but about 10 years later I came across a neuroscientist whose work blew the bloody doors off! In Karen Pryor’s book, Reaching the Animal Mind, she interviewed a neuroscientist to discuss just why clicker training was so effective. What happened in the brain of animals that was so different? This was Jaak Panksepp, who had been studying emotions in the brain for many years and had coined the term “Affective Neuroscience”, which was also the title of his first book.
It is a pure textbook, directed at post-graduate students of the brain. I was a horse lover and trainer, not a brain scientist. Many pages took me an hour to read and a pot of tea to recover from. It was dense, detailed, full of unpronounceable terms and utterly fascinating. And it proved beyond any doubt, that of course animals have feelings because they share the same brain structure as their fellow animals, humans. As Panksepp said: “We are brothers and sisters under the skin with all the other animals…” Bingo! Proof at last!
Part of the evidence base came from using Deep Brain Electro-Stimulation (DBS). This means identifying the parts of the brain where the emotions may be articulated and stimulating them with electrical probes. So, for example, when Panksepp stimulated one part of the brain, at low current levels the animal would freeze. At higher levels, the flight response was created. Doing it to a human, resulted in the human reporting feeling terrified for his life; e.g. “Somebody is now chasing me; I am trying to escape him”. This allowed Panksepp to map the FEAR system. Another DBS placement would result in the rat starting to run around sniffing vigorously and investigating its environment. Humans would report that something very exciting and interesting is going on. This was the SEEKING system being stimulated.
In this way, with slow painstaking research over 50 years, Panksepp identified 7 emotional systems in the mammalian brain: SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF and PLAY. These systems are all founded in the deepest part of the mid-brain. They consist of brain structures and chemistries and track from this deep part into the cortex, showing that emotions and cognition (thinking) are part of networked systems. In order to differentiate between talking about feelings, such as fear, he capitalised the names he gave the systems, so we could be clear that we are talking about a coherent, traceable universal system of brain functioning.
He pointed out that these 7 systems are present in all mammalian brains and are given by evolution as the “tools for living”. So, the “go explore, find out what’s out there” instruction of the SEEKING system is present at birth. It does not have to be learned. It is hard-wired in and it feels good. The “run away from this scary thing” instruction is embedded in the FEAR system and it feels bad. So there’s the affective (or “feeling”) nature of the system. None of these systems feel neutral. They are either good or bad. You either want more or less of it (appetitive or aversive).
How Does it Fit into Horse Training?
As a teacher of horse training I have found this work to really help students to understand what is happening as they introduce reward-based training to their horses. The science of behaviourism has helped us a lot, but, deriving from Skinner’s work, it typically does not allow for emotional thinking and the training can become quite mechanistic. Adding in the emotional understanding immediately deepens our perspective of what’s happening and then we tend to focus more on how the horse is feeling, rather than getting too hung up on whether the horse is performing the correct behaviours .
For example, many domestic horses have become shut down. What does this mean? Essentially it means that they have learned to depress their SEEKING system, which primes natural curiosity and exploration. Horses have this in abundance but, if they experience too much punishment for displaying it, they will learn to suppress it. So, for example, horses who get jabbed in the mouth with the bit each time they look to left or right will learn to keep their heads straight and stop exploring the world with their eyes. They are doing the required behaviour of looking straight ahead, but what has happened in the brain? What is the nature of this learning?
Well, essentially the bit-jabbing causes actual pain to the tongue, lips, and mouth. This will activate the FEAR system which will engage the SEEKING system and the cognitive brain to work out what causes the pain, so it can be avoided. After many trials, since the horse is not consciously moving his head, but is responding to the innate SEEKING system urges to look around and be cognisant of his world, the brain will learn that the thing that happens before the pain is the head movement. In order to suppress the head movement to avoid the pain, the horse will have to suppress his natural SEEKING urge to view the world, so the SEEKING system will be suppressed.
Suppression of the SEEKING system is what we call depression in humans. So a horse who has learned to be submissive, through the pain training of the bit, is actually a depressed horse. A shut down horse.
When we start to change things for this horse and train using rewards, it is likely that the horse will be mistrustful at first, waiting to be told what to do rather than displaying curiosity and trying different things to earn a reward. The training will need to proceed slowly and the horse given big rewards to build confidence. It’s helpful for the owner to understand this and so she’ll be more encouraged by tiny responses from the horse and not lose heart herself.
Thinking about it this way, with the supportive evidence of excellent science, surely will also help the argument in the wider horsey world, that horses need enriched lives and reward-based training? This work will have currency with the scientific community and could even be used by expert witnesses in cruelty cases (OK, I’m a utopian thinker. Indulge me a little!). But it could certainly be the clincher down the pub, when you’re being told you’re being anthropomorphic when you say your horse is depressed because her buddy just died!
It’s Just You and Your Horse
At Connection Training, this knowledge of good modern neuroscience, supports our natural inclinations to not be dogmatic. We don’t feel any need to say “do this because you’ve signed up to our programme and we know best.” Instead we say, “look at the evidence, look at the video examples we give you, have a go and tell us what you feel”. It’s you and your horse and the only programme that’s going to work is the one the two of you work out as you go along. Using information like this helps us to empower you to feel safe to explore and learn along with your horse so you create your relationship together. You and your horse are complex mammals, with matching emotional brains designed to help you bond and relate to others. You have more in common than maybe you thought, and certainly more than you were taught in science classes!
More fascinating Jaak Panksepp Resources for you on the neuroscience of emotions:
Jaak’s TED Talk
Jaak Tickling Rats (trust us on this one!)
The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion Jaak Panksepp’s more recent and easily digestible book
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