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Why pet owners know as much as neuroscientists about animal minds

by Rebecca Roache

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There has recently been a spate of news stories about animals grieving. The Huffington Post features a video of a dog burying a dead puppy, New York Daily News reports a dog and a cat mourning the death of a dog, and a video entitled ‘Bella (dog) mourns death of Beavis (beaver)’ recently went viral. There are great contradictions in the way in which we, as a society, view the capacity of animals to experience mental states comparable to those enjoyed by humans. On the one hand, many of us love and share our lives and homes with animals (I am currently battling for space on my keyboard with our black and white cat, Wellie). On the other hand, we humans very often treat animals as nothing more than tools to serve our own ends—and even the UK, a country with relatively strict animal welfare legislation, permits animals to be subjected to conditions akin to a hell on earth in the name of scientific research, intensive farming, and pest control.

Scepticism about the capacity of animals to experience conscious mental states like suffering—let alone more complex ones like grief—is most often associated with the influence of Descartes. Optimists may have reason to hope that scientific evidence about the mental lives of animals will soon extinguish such scepticism: last year a group of eminent neuroscientists published the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which proclaims that humans are not alone in possessing consciousness (for a discussion of the Declaration, see here). Science, it seems, may hold the key to improving the way animals are treated.

Even so, the approach of looking to science to inform us about animal minds is puzzling. The only mind to which each of us has direct access is our own. The ‘problem of other minds’, a staple of undergraduate philosophy courses, is the problem of how each of us can know that there exist minds other than our own. We do not directly perceive other people’s minds; rather, we read their mental states from their behaviour. But, of course, behaviour is not an infallible guide to mental states: whilst someone may behave as though she is in pain because she really is in pain, she may also behave this way because she is pretending to be in pain, or because she is a robot designed to move in a certain way in response to certain stimuli. Despite the fact that there is no truly satisfactory solution to the problem of other minds, nobody—except, perhaps, for some psychotic or otherwise delusional individuals—seriously doubts that other people have minds. Further, we believe that other people have minds without looking to neuroscience for evidence. So, if we don’t need science to prove to us that other people have minds, why do many people look to science to prove that animals have minds? 1

One possibility is that, in everyday life, we encounter more evidence for the existence of other human minds than we encounter for animal minds. People can report their mental states to us, and we are better at reading their mental states from their behaviour than we are at reading the mental states of animals from animal behaviour. In fact, Wittgenstein claimed that there is a sense in which we perceive other people’s mental states non-inferentially (Wittgenstein 1967: §225). On the other hand, we often have to work harder at inferring animal mental states from animal behaviour: for example, to someone who has not spent a lot of time with toads, it is not immediately obvious what sort of behaviour is indicative of toad contentment. Add this problem to the one mentioned above—that behaviour is not an infallible guide to mental states—and it seems there is a case for looking elsewhere for evidence about animals’ mental states. Given recent advances in functional neuroimaging technology, it is tempting to look to neuroscience for insight about the mental lives of animals.

The psychologist Martha Farah has argued that neuroscience is indeed a promising route to discoveries about animal minds (Farah 2008). She notes that, while behaviour is only contingently linked to mental states, brain states and mental states are non-contingently related. In other words, it’s possible for someone to behave as if they are (say) in pain without really feeling pain, but it’s not possible for someone to exhibit brain states associated with pain without really feeling pain. To discover whether an animal is capable of suffering, we just need to find out whether it exhibits appropriate brain activity—specifically, activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—in response to pain-inducing stimuli. Activation of the ACC is associated with suffering in humans, so if we find ACC activation in animals in response to pain-inducing stimuli, we may conclude that those animals are capable of suffering.

The problem with this approach is that it fails to dispense with the need to rely on behavioural clues to make discoveries about mental states. What evidence supports the hypothesis that ACC activation is linked to suffering in humans? Answer: humans exhibiting the right sort of activation are able to report suffering, or behave as if they are suffering. And, what evidence supports the hypothesis that ACC activation is also linked to suffering in animals? Answer: animals with the right sort of activation behave as if they are suffering. Consider that, had researchers failed to associate animal ACC activation with any consistent behaviours even after many repeated observations, they would have been forced to conclude that there is no evidence for the claim that animal ACC activation is correlated with the experience of suffering. As a result, neuroscientific claims about animal minds, such as ‘animals exhibiting ACC activation experience suffering’, are only as strong as the behavioural evidence that supports them. Functional neuroimaging of animal minds may produce impressive-looking scans, but it hardly bypasses the need to observe animal behaviour in trying to learn about their mental lives. It is debatable why people are liable to overestimate the informativeness of neuroscientific explanations, and one alarming study has found that even logically irrelevant neuroscientific information can make a bad explanation seem more satisfying (Weisberg et al. 2008).

It is, it seems, important to question what neuroscience can really tell us about animal experience. In this case, it looks like neuroscience is a big red herring and cannot tell us more than what pet owners have known for centuries: animals have minds.

 1 For simplicity, I’m glossing over the fact that different sorts of animals doubtless have different sorts of mental lives. My concern here is with the stark differences between influential approaches to human and animal minds.



Farah, M. 2008: ‘Neuroethics and the problem of other minds: implications of neuroscience for the moral status of brain-damaged patients and nonhuman animals’, Neuroethics 1/1: 9–18.

Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E. and Gray, J. R. 2008: ‘The seductive allure of neuroscientific explanations’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 20/3: 470–77.

Wittgentstein, L. 1967: Zettel, Anscombe, G. E. M. and von Wright, G. H. (eds.), Anscombe, G. E. M. (trans.) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).

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8 Comment on this post

  1. “Further, we believe that other people have minds without looking to neuroscience for evidence. So, if we don’t need science to prove to us that other people have minds, why do many people look to science to prove that animals have minds?”

    It’s not a matter of providing “proof”, it’s a matter of providing a wider range of reliable evidence. And the answer is obvious: we turn to science because unlike “other people”, who are other examples of our own kind, non-human animals may be quite different in very basic ways. Humans can be notoriously anthropomorphic in their interpretations of animal behaviour, so a scientifically disciplined approach is desirable to filter out overly subjective impressions. And neuroscience is only one field providing data. Ethology and comparative psychology are other approaches providing scientific perspectives.

    1. ‘It’s not a matter of providing “proof”, it’s a matter of providing a wider range of reliable evidence’. Well, I certainly agree that there is much that neuroscience can tell us about animal minds once we’ve agreed on the initial assumptions. My point is that these initial assumptions cannot but rely on behavioural observation. Looking to neuroscience for answers with this point firmly in mind is fine. However, as Farah’s discussion illustrates, it is common to be seduced by neuroscience into thinking that we are looking directly into animal minds, having bypassed the behavioural observation stage and its associated shortcomings. This is a mistake.

      ‘[U]nlike “other people”, who are other examples of our own kind, non-human animals may be quite different in very basic ways’. This is the very double standard I’m questioning. Yes, animals may differ from humans in very basic ways, but other humans may differ from me (or you – whoever the observer in question is) in very basic ways too. We generally doubt that others differ from ourselves in ways relevant to answering the question whether they have minds or not, but the evidence that other people have minds is not different in kind from the evidence that animals have minds – and the evidence that humans have certain mental states (e.g. pain) is no stronger than the evidence that animals have those mental states.

      ‘Humans can be notoriously anthropomorphic in their interpretations of animal behaviour, so a scientifically disciplined approach is desirable to filter out overly subjective impressions’. I agree that humans can be anthropomorphic, and this can be a mistake, but I don’t agree that the scientific approach is more likely to be accurate. From the point of view of determining the nature of animals’ mental lives, the scientific approach swings too far in the opposite direction (i.e. away from anthropomorphism). That the animals studied by scientists are often in a context where they are viewed as objects, interchangeable (i.e. they’re not viewed as individuals: one lab rat is as good as any other for the purpose), and outside their natural/preferred environment doesn’t help here. The academic literature on dehumanisation is very relevant here, if you ignore the fact that the term ‘dehumanisation’ is literally inapplicable to animals: the sort of circumstances in which various researchers have claimed that people are likely to be dehumanised (and mistreated as a result) are also found in contexts where animals are used for industrial purposes like scientific research and food production. Personally, in considering whether animals have mental lives, I’d trust the opinion of an intelligent pet owner over that of an animal research scientist.

      ‘Ethology and comparative psychology are other approaches providing scientific perspectives’. I agree. But, again, let’s not forget that behavioural observation ultimately underpins the data generated by these fields.

  2. Rocco Paolucci, D.Ed.

    Outstanding article. The other big mistake made by most scientists (neuro and otherwise), is to associate the “mind” strictly with the “brain”. In other words, it is assumed that by studying the brain activities of human and non-human animals, they can make conclusion about their minds. This is like saying: “we will study your hand, so we can understand your handwriting”. The mind is much more complex and mysterious than that. It is connected to the spirit and soul, which cannot be studied by science.

    1. Thank you Rocco. I don’t think we need to endorse mind/brain dualism to accommodate the point you make. Many scientists could do with studying philosophy of mind, as it’s surprising how many of them seem to be dualists. I think it is important to recognise that one can claim that the mind is the brain without subscribing to the view that claims about mental states are reducible to claims about physical (e.g. brain) states. In the same way, one can claim (as I take it most of us would) that a beautiful painting is composed of nothing more than physical objects (e.g. the canvas, the frame, the patterns of paint) without subscribing to the view that claims about beauty are reducible to claims about canvas and blobs of paint.

  3. Thanks for your insightful article. While it certainly is true that animal research isn’t about to crack the “problem of other minds” that has yet to be cracked among our fellow humans, there are important distinctions between the kinds of experiments we can do in humans and those we can do in animals. For instance, in animals we can show that this same region, the ACC, is not just a behavioral correlate but a causative factor in producing the behaviors we interpret as suffering. So, in a sense, we know more about the suffering of animals than we do about the suffering of other humans.

  4. Eric Daryl Meyer

    What mosts interests me is that “we” in Western culture have structured the politics of our knowledge such that we need to “prove” to ourselves that other animals are in fact possessed of their own unique sorts of pensivity. Moreover, in all sorts of contexts, we put our supposed ignorance on this point to “good use”—-see factory farms, labs, etc.

    It seems to me that our collective societal agnosticism on this matter is at least a form of culpably willful ignorance, if not outright bad faith. Granted that all sorts of silly anthropomorphisms need to be set aside, but when the vast majority of human interaction with non-human creatures is based on the denial of “what pet owners have known for centuries,” there’s something more like ideology than ignorance at work.

  5. Excellent topic and discussion. Neuroscience’s contributions to understanding common areas of cognition, expression and perception between humans and animals depend on the goals of the scientist(s) and the tools they use to assist them. For every neuroscientist with the subtlety and depth of an Adrian Owens, there is probably the corresponding schmuck with nothing better to do than stimulate the ACC region in dogs, and watch and record their suffering. And I have to say, the standard for continued research funding for the schmuck would be to hook him up, stimulate his ACC region, and record his suffering. If he survives, give him a small grant, and suggest he change his focus.

    For nuanced observations and depth, it’s hard to beat Inside of a Dog, What Dogs See, Smell and Know, by Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University.

    She chronicles dog behavior research, and illuminates canine behavior in marvelous depth. Much of her research focuses on endless slow motion analysis of filmed dog behaviors.

    While their dog brains are different than ours, there is no doubt they display a broad range of emotions: affection, jealousy, pride among them. Who can beat them in pattern recognition, I say, as I pet our three miniature dachshunds.

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