The Inner Lives of Animals

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Animal Cognition, Communication, Connection & Explorations of Consciousness

A Short Summary of the Three "C's"

Could it be possible that animals have Consciousness? Harvard University presented the first Animal Consciousness Conference in 2014. That science is beginning to take this question seriously is evident in the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness in non-human animals. You can read the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness in which they declared that they believe that the question of consciousness can be applied to animals.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

The last ten years have produced significant scientific research and publications that explore and disrupt long-standing assumptions about the potential for numerous species of animals to experience a rich inner life. For example, there was a time when the defining line between humans and animals was thought to be toolmaking. Now, just about every species studied, from the octopus, to the elephant, the dolphin, the raven, etc., shows the use of cognitively complex toolmaking.

Robin Williams and Koko share a tickle

Then there was the question of language acquisition and purposeful communication. Primates such as Koko the gorilla were taught sign language, and she not only had the vocabulary of a three-year-old human child, but has given us profound insight into her rich emotional life.

Science is also uncovering the complexity of whale songs, and many other species who seem to be communicating in meaningful ways with each other. John W. Pilley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Wolford College, has taught his dog Chaser, a border collie, over 1,000 words, and Chaser can understand significant differences in grammatical structure. So many species, such as chimps, elephants, wild dolphins have complex social structures. The more we study animals the more we learn that we have underestimated their inner lives as well as their ability to communicate.

John M. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that crows and wild ravens will remember a human face, as either “friend or foe” even years later. Even more perplexing is that the ravens can communicate this information to other ravens hundreds of miles away who have never seen the human, but will recognize that human as either friend or foe without ever having had contact with the human. Somehow the ravens have communicated this important information to each other. And all of this important information is communicated without social media.

Several studies (De Waal and others) point to self-awareness, cooperation and empathy, (mice for example have been shown to have pain mirror responses when they see others in pain), and many animals show comforting behaviors to those who are distressed emotionally and suffering physically. Other studies show a sense of time in social animals. De Waal has shown evidence of emotions in animals and pro-social behaviors such as conciliation, reconciliation, reciprocity and a sense of fairness.

Animal “inequity aversion” shows how capuchin monkeys will not work and perform tasks for unequal pay. Other studies show some species will decline a treat unless their friend gets the same reward.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns at Emory University, has pioneered fMRI’s on awake dogs, to explore their rich emotional lives and responses to specific stimuli. These dogs were carefully trained to enter the loud fMRI machines which allowed us to understand that not only do dogs have complex emotional responses, but their brains are very, very similar to ours. Meaning we process emotions like anger, fear, pain, joy, anticipation and many more emotions in almost the same brain regions as dogs do.

The pursuit of physical and emotional pleasure has been demonstrated by animal behavior research scientist Johnathan Balcombe, author of What A Fish Knows, who has demonstrated that animals feel pain and stress, and also proposes that evolution favors sensory rewards because they drive living creatures to stay alive and reproduce.

It was once thought that only humans laugh. But recent science has shown that many animals laugh. Now that we have computer technology that can detect sounds that the human ear can't hear we have discovered that many species that have been studied, laugh out loud. Even laboratory mice have been shown by Jaak Panksepp to anticipate being tickled, and laugh when given this attention. Thinking about the fact that animals laugh makes us expand our view of the inner lives and play of animals.

Many species have been observed making tools, recognizing their reflection in mirrors, having a sense of time – including memory or the past, awareness of the present and anticipation of the future. Social animals have been shown to have high levels of compassion, even with members of other species (such as the two-year-old chimpanzee, Anjana, who without training nursed orphaned Siberian Tiger cubs, lions, and leopards who were without mothers.)

In addition to animals learning the meaning of elements of human language, studies of the animals’ natural communication methods are blossoming, as demonstrated in the work of Klaus Zuberbuhler at the Department of Psychology at the Max Planck Institute and at the University of Pennsylvania. His field research with Diana monkeys in West Africa has revealed that their own language is rich and complex, and their calls are purposeful.

One specific call indicates to the other members of their group that a leopard is present, versus a slightly different call that indicates an eagle, each predator requiring a different strategy of evasion. It has also been shown that birds, and other primate species correctly interpreted the Diana monkey’s warning calls.

Extensive precise and accurate observation of body language, such as with primates, horses, dogs, and other social animals, has given us a better understanding of the inner workings of their worlds. Professor Rupert Sheldrake (Cambridge/ Harvard), a bold and controversial researcher with over 80 technical papers published in scientific journals, has over 1,500 case studies of human/animal communication that may involve a level of transmission we are only beginning to explore. His book "Animals Who Know When their Owners Are Coming Home" will amaze you. Even when their human comes at an unpredicatable time, or by a different mode of arrival, video cameras have captured the animal preparing at the exact moment the human DECIDES to return home. This is the best part of an animal's day!

An example of the kind of “invisible” (to humans) communication that animals use is seen at The Dolphin Institute at Kewalo Basin, a research center in Hawaii. After extensive training, these dolphins can be given the command “Tandem Create” – which means two dolphins instantly design a new trick, perform it together, in perfect sync with each other. How are they communicating this new information to each other?

A growing number of respected scientists are reporting examples of what appears to be animal “telepathy” or non-local communication, and a tremendous understanding of what their humans are experiencing and planning. Rupert Sheldrake reports that one Veterinarian’s office in England won’t take appointments for cats, because so many of them seem to know when their owners plan to go to the vet, and the cats disappear. This happens even without the owners giving any signs, such as retrieving the cat carrier.

Dutch primatologist and biologist Frans de Waal has explored and reported on both the scope and depth of animal intelligence, with research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, chimpanzees, bonobos and wasps, to name a few species. These studies show us how we have vastly underestimated animal intelligence and challenge us to re-examine how we define it. Ayumu, a young male chimpanzee studied at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan, shows that this chimp is way ahead of humans in complex memory tests. The chimps also show that they can have a sense of time, and will voluntarily arrive on time at the research lab testing site, for a reward of a taste of honey.

And when we consider animal intelligence we need to not use our own intelligence as a reference, as many animals have a kind of intelligence we humans can barely fathom. Chickens can recognize and differentiate human faces and see more colors than humans. Piglets recognize their own name at two weeks old and can out perform dogs on certain intelligence criteria. Cows can remember events for up to three years. The senses of other animals, their memories, their ability to "read their environment" could put us to shame. How is it that thousands of birds can fly in synchrony without crashing into each other?

The examples of spectacular levels of intelligence exist in almost every species. Such as squirrels who can recall the locations of hundreds of buried acorns months later. Or trained pigeons who can detect hairline fractures on x-rays with greater accuracy than teams of doctors.

And trained dogs who have learned to detect cancer from breath and saliva samples with a 98% accuracy. They have also learned to detect the presence of Covid-19 with an instant positive or negative answer. It is time to frame a new paradigm for understanding the potential of animals, in order to help us become better humans!

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Genie Joseph, PhD

Executive Director

The Human-Animal Connection


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