Animals Are Smarter Than You Think. Way Smarter.

According to new research, the ability to feel regret is not limited to just human beings.

Behavioral and neurophysiological correlates of regret in rat decision-making on a neuroeconomic task,” a University of Minnesota study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Neuroscience on 8 June 2014, shows that, when it comes to regret, rat’s brains work somewhat like humans’.

In order to study the complex emotion, the authors, Adam P Steiner and A David Redish, were careful to first differentiate disappointment from regret. The former they defined as “the recognition that one did not get the value expected,” the latter as “recognition that an alternative (counterfactual) action would have produced a more valued outcome.” Disappointment, then, would be making a smoothie that ends up tasting much worse than you thought it would (and, for all the smoothie-makers out there, let’s face it, this is a disappointment we all sometimes share). Regret, on the other hand, would be realizing that the ingredients you used to make that smoothie would have been much better used making something else.

While rats might not be able to make smoothies, they can regret eating the wrong food. And the authors of this study showed this by “letting the rats choose what to do.”

In “Restaurant Row”—how the scientists informally refer to the four-spoked maze used in the experiment—rats had a number of potential foods (flavored with banana, cherry, or chocolate or “unflavored”), or “restaurants,” from which they could choose. Their time at each restaurant, however, was limited. When a rat arrived at a spoke, a tone would sound; its pitch communicated to the rat how long it would have to wait before it could eat the food, ranging from one to 45 seconds. Given the rat had only one hour to satisfy its gustatory desires, it would be obligated to choose some restaurants over others.

The study found that, quite like humans, rats have individual food preferences. Not all rats share the same palate; some preferred specific flavors over others, and were willing to wait longer at particular restaurants in order to satisfy those particular tastes.

This isn’t the groundbreaking part, however. Steiner and Redish recorded each rat’s savory soft spots and then used this information to study how the animals made decisions based upon their respective relish. This is where it gets really interesting.

The location of the human orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for feeling regret

The location of the human orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for feeling regret
CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

When human express regret, the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain (the part of the brain located right above the eye sockets, or “orbits”) is active. In rats, the orbitofrontal cortex, along with the ventral striatum, the “reward center” of the brain, fired when rats “looked backwards toward the lost option.” The specific nerve-cell pattern in the rat’s brain responsible for this lost flavor would also fire, indicating the rat wished it had chosen more wisely.

Nature Neuroscience, in which this research was published, is one of the world’s most prestigious and influential neuroscience journals. It is published by Nature Publishing Group, the same international publishing company responsible for Nature, the most-cited interdisciplinary scientific journal. Professor A. David Redish, who co-authored the study, published a new book last year with Oxford University Press, The Mind within the Brain: How We Make Decisions and How those Decisions Go Wrong, in which he synthesizes years of research in neuroscience, robotics, computational analysis, learning theory, and more in order to formulate a “new unified theory of the multi-dimensional mammalian decision-making system, describing its vulnerabilities and “failure modes.”

Although important, Redish’s and Steiner’s research is nevertheless not necessarily paradigm-shifting. A 2007 study found rats to be the first known non-primate to demonstrate metacognition, that is to say “the ability to think about what they know or don’t know.”

This new research joins an ever-growing list of evidence demonstrating that non-human animals are much smarter—and, perhaps more importantly, much more capable of feeling—than many of us think.

Late last year, Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, published an article in Scientific American advocating for an expanded conception of consciousness beyond mere “human exceptionalism.” He explained

All species—bees, octopuses, ravens, crows, magpies, parrots, tuna, mice, whales, dogs, cats and monkeys—are capable of sophisticated, learned, nonstereotyped behaviors that would be associated with consciousness if a human were to carry out such actions. Precursors of behaviors thought to be unique to people are found in many species. For instance, bees are capable of recognizing specific faces from photographs, can communicate the location and quality of food sources to their sisters via the waggle dance, and can navigate complex mazes with the help of cues they store in short-term memory (for instance, “after arriving at a fork, take the exit marked by the color at the entrance”). Bees can fly several kilometers and return to their hive, a remarkable navigational performance.

Salon syndicated the piece, provocatively titling it Can bees have Proustian moments too?. Paralleling the prominence of olfactory description in the French author’s magnum opus À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Koch discusses bee’s remarkable associative memories. “Other animals can recognize themselves, know when their conspecifics observe them, and can lie and cheat,” he also writes.

A 2006 article in the Journal of Experimental Biology corroborates these points, explaining furthermore that bees use top-down visual processing, can learn principles of symbolic matching and symbolic communicative coding systems, and more.

In some areas, rats might even be more skilled than human beings. A study found that rats, along with pigeons, are better at forecasting than humans. And, speaking of pigeons, a 2011 study found the birds to be “on Par with Primates in Numerical Competence.” Bees can count; that’s nothing very special. Pigeons, however, can do basic mathematics and learn abstract mathematical rules.

Many people know that birds are some of the smartest living things on the planet. The African Grey Parrot, capable of learning simple definitions and constructing basic sentences, is not an uncommon pet. Birds are also the only known non-primate to create and employ tools. New research even indicates that crows are as intelligent as seven-year-old human beings.

Okay, so non-human animals can think and learn. That’s incredibly interesting, but what about feeling? Does the capacity to think imply, or even necessarily correspond with, the capacity to “feel,” in the human sense of the term? Can non-human animals feel?

Much recent research indicates that many non-humans animals indeed feel just like us. Leading animal behavior scientist R.W. Elwood explains that, during all of the “extreme procedures” to which we subject crustaceans—including “having their legs removed while they are still alive, crabs being kept alive but tightly bound for days in fish markets, and live prawns being impaled on sticks for eating—they feel pain. When we are boiling them alive, yes, they feel every second of it.

A 2009 study found that fish can indeed feel pain, and perhaps react it to it just as much as humans.

Recent research suggests bees exhibit emotions like anxiety (whether they experience pain is still debated, but many hypothesize that they do not).

In perhaps even further confirmation, Discovery explains that we can learn a bit about ourselves by studying animal suicide. There “is a long history of animals behaving suicidally,” it notes, and as mutual biological organisms, we can learn from this history.

Ad for the 2012 Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals

Ad for the 2012 Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals
CREDIT: Francis Crick Memorial Conference website

On 7 July 2012, “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at” the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals at The University of Cambridge to write the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, an articulation of the consensus of the scientific community vis–à–vis non-human animal consciousness (the document notes the “signing ceremony was memorialized by CBS 60 Minutes”). In it, the scientists explained that, while it is naturally very difficult to study other living things, with whom we cannot “clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observations can be stated unequivocally”:

  • An abundance of new research on consciousness is available, and the field of study is growing rapidly, calling “for a periodic reevaluation of previously held preconceptions in this field.”
  • Animals with different kinds of brains are still capable of feeling. The ability to feel emotions is not limited to animals with developed brain cortices or neocortices; subcortices are also important for emotions. Previous attempts to only study non-human animals that share similar brains were therefore necessarily limited. Insects and mollusks even have the the neural circuits responsible for “states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making.”
  • Birds appear to exhibit “near human-like levels of consciousness” and sleep patterns similar to those of mammals. Mammal and bird emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries are much more similar than previously thought. Some birds, like great apes, dolphins, and elephants, have demonstrated abilities of mirror self-recognition.
  • (Perhaps the most intriguing, and even comical, point of all) Certain hallucinogens appear to have the same or similar effects on non-human animals as they do on humans (that is to say, give many non-human animals drugs, and they’ll trip just like we do). Given homologous subcortical brain networks (brain similarity), it is quite possible that there are “evolutionarily shared primal” emotions.

The declaration concludes noting that the absence of a neocortex does not prevent an organism from feeling. Evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological characteristics necessary for consciousness, as well as “the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.”

Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

It is ergo absolutely clear that many non-human animals can, in some ways, think like we do, learn like we do, and feel like we do. Consciousness, an attribute limited for so long in Western culture solely to humans, is no longer that exceptional (some might even say it’s overrated).

These issues are of course incredibly complex, and there will always be the small handful of scientists who disagree with the majority of the scientific community. The increasing frequency of the kinds of studies discussed above evinces an intense interest in this exciting field, nevertheless. And The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, along with much of this research, points toward a growing consensus in the scientific community that non-human animals are way smarter and, well, more human-like than many of us think.

In 2006, Discovery entertained the idea that animal intelligence “resists definition.” In the article, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine research scientist Jonathan Balcombe explains that the “closer we examine animals, the more they surprise us with their intelligence and awareness.” He explains that “[c]hickens practice deception, pigeons can categorize images in photographs as quickly as we can, a gorilla plays a joke on a human teacher, and a tiny fish leaps from one tide pool to another using a mental map formed during high tide.”

It is pivotal to note that, in the discussion of non-human animal intelligence, and especially in the discussion of non-human animal emotion, an anthropocentric perspective is invariably limiting. It is very problematic to judge the mental and emotional abilities of other living things with inherently human standards. Whether such a tendency is unavoidable is a heatedly contested (and perhaps unanswerable) question, yet it is one that we must continue to deliberate, with open minds.

What is clear, nonetheless, is that non-human animals indeed exhibit cognitive and affective abilities that are even human-like. For those, therefore, who do not accept the value of non-human life by mere virtue of their existence, perhaps these reasons may suffice in the fostering of some kind of empathy.

Because the obvious conclusion of this new research is that, if we wish to be morally consistent, yet alone conscionable, we must drastically expand our conceptions of non-human animal rights. If we respect non-human animals like dogs, cats, and horses, we should extend those rights to other forms of life.

Here’s the part where everyone cringes… but, actually, I’m not even going to bother with some kind of food proselytizing. I don’t think this means everyone should go vegan, or even vegetarian. In fact, I think such an insistence is quite troublesome, particularly in its classist and ableist implications.

If anything, in the discussion of non-human animal rights, focusing exclusively, or even primarily, on food practices is myopic. Non-human animal rights extend much further than diet. By focusing largely on diet, the Western non-human animal rights movement does itself a great disservice, emphasizing individual lifestyle choices—adopted overwhelmingly by more privileged segments of the population (it’s quite hard to be a healthy vegan when you live in a food desert)—over structural changes in the relationship of human society itself to non-human animal life around (and inside of) it.

Factory farms are brutally and inexcusably violent, an egregious and despicable stain on contemporary supposed morality; and, yes, livestock still remains a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. However, with approximately 150-200 species forced into extinction by (mostly privileged, Global North, industrial) human activities per day, we see that environmental destruction is the principal locus of non-human animal suffering.

The most important manifestation of the non-human animal rights movement (not to mention the human rights movement) is the global environmental movement. The construction of an ecologically sustainable and just society is an infinitely more important concern than getting everyone in some rich developed country to adopt a plant-based diet. This is not to say the two are mutually exclusive, by any means, but it is to suggest that we must broaden the scope of what we consider non-human animal rights.

Non-human animals think, feel, and know much more than Western culture has taken for granted for centuries. And if we still pride ourselves the smartest and most compassionate species of them all (a controversial thesis), it would only follow that we (and this “we” is directed primarily, again, at the privileged, industrial Global North, overwhelmingly guilty for anthropogenic climate change) stop destroying the planet on which everyone lives. The survival of the very planet human and non-human animals alike share depends on it.

If we fail, we may have very well proven that they were smarter (and more compassionate) than us all along.