How do animals think?

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Sunday, May 10, 2015
Have you ever wondered what goes on in an animal's mind? What kinds of thoughts it has, or whether it can be sad or happy?
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Do they think like people do? It turns out that research is proving more and more just how complex animals' thoughts can be. And some of the things they are capable of are quite amazing!

There are 1,305,250 species of animals in this world, 62,305 of these with backbone. We are all made up of similar systems. However different species, of which humans are just one, all have different abilities and needs in order to be fit and happy. Many feel the same kinds of sensations and emotions as us: hunger and thirst, heat and cold, pain and pleasure, fear, stress and anxiety. But they don't always feel things in the same way, or react in ways that make it easy for humans to understand.

Most animals are what we describe as 'sentient' - they can think, perceive their environment, and experience suffering and pleasure, although they may experience and understand these in diverse ways. Animals are also 'conscious' just like people, that is, they have an awareness of things within themselves and their surroundings. There are different levels of consciousness and some animals have higher levels than others. Lower levels of consciousness allow species to experience sensations and emotions, but not necessarily be aware of more complex ideas like time and space.

For example, hermit crabs have been found to respond to painful stimulations by evacuating their shells, although those with better quality shells take longer to leave than those with poor quality shells. This suggests to scientists that the crabs are motivated to hang onto these more valuable items, although they may not be as aware as say a human would be about why they received the pain, or what they could do to avoid it. Higher consciousness allows species, including people and some animals, to think about their past, and make plans for the future.

For example, when studying chimpanzees, Jane Goodall noted when chimpanzees are aggressive towards another member of the group, it may cause that individual to leave the group after repeated attacks. This shows us that the chimpanzee can remember what happened to it in the past, and make a decision to do something about its experiences. New Caledonian Crows are able to learn how to make, and use a variety or tools and when given the choice, select ones that are appropriate for a particular task. This demonstrates their ability to learn from the past, and make decisions about what is required for the future.

Some examples of ways that animals can think differently to people:

An animal may not react in the same way when it is injured. Prey species like mice can be good at hiding their pain, especially when showing weakness may mean they could get eaten by an eagle!

An animal may not be able to explain uncomfortable experiences to itself, in the way that we can, say when we visit the dentist. This means that they may feel more frightened and unsure about experiences, similar to how a child may react when it gets hurt.

Sometimes animals can enjoy the same kinds of experience as we do. We've all seen a dog enjoy a lie in the sunshine, or munch on delicious food! Or a mother cow interact with its new born calf.

Although it may not be possible for other species to compose masterpieces of music like Beethoven or Mozart did, science is discovering the amazing abilities of animals that we once thought were only possessed by people. Animals as diverse as octopuses, dolphins, apes and birds use tools. Apes, dolphins and parrots can understand some basic human language.

Other animals demonstrate empathy and altruism. Some animals have even demonstrated a degree of self-awareness, that is, knowing that they are an individual that is separate from others and from the environment. Apes, elephants, magpies and dolphins have all shown in tests with mirrors that the image in the mirror is a reflection of their own body. When a mark is put on their skin, they touch the mirror to try to groom themselves.

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