The Edmond Sun


January 4, 2013

Compassion held by more than just humanity

EDMOND — A trio of news items emerging from the scientific world have me thinking about the word “emotion.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, emotion is: “a strong feeling of deriving from one’s circumstances, mood or relationships with others:… Instinctive or intuitive feelings as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.” I assumed that scientists and philosophers grappled with questions of “human emotion” as soon as they were able to record their reflections and observations. I was wrong. “Emotion” didn’t show up in English with the above meaning until the 1800s. Before that, people talked about “hysterics” and “humors.”

Here’s something else I was wrong about. For years, I doubted whether animals had genuine emotions. When I witnessed a gray-muzzled Rottweiler grieving when his closest canine companion died in an accident, I changed my mind. There’s no way to deny that “Old Bear” suffered — emotionally — from his loss.

Review the definition of “emotion” quoted above. You’ll notice the word “human” is absent. Even the most casual observer of animal behavior can see evidence of “strong feeling” instinctive in nature and unrelated to reasoning or knowledge — just like people.

 The question is no longer “Do animals have emotions?” The question is, how much do people and animals have in common emotionally? Are there emotions that distinguish humans from all other animals? Are emotions — human emotions — undergoing a change?

Here’s where recent science comes in.

For some time, we’ve known that music has the power to prompt emotional responses in humans. Numerous studies use brain imaging to map human neural responses to music. Scientists conclude people experience a pleasant “emotion” listening to their favorite music and this emotion corresponds to signatures on brain scans. Recently, researchers from Emory University discovered a parallel signature in birds.

Dr. Donna Maney co-authored the study. Female white-throated sparrows listening to the male bird songs exhibited a brain signature remarkably similar to that of humans listening to their favorite music. According to Sarah Earp, who headed the study, “Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion.”

We might object that this neural evidence is too thin to conclude female sparrows actually “love” male bird song like some of us “love” Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. But these findings suggest we have a lot to learn about the internal lives of the animals who share this planet with us.

But this is no newsflash. We also have a lot to learn about our own emotional triggers. Consider, for example, an adage quoted to American school children for generations: Pretty is as pretty does. Now there may be scientific support to back this up.

Researchers at the University of California Riverside divided four hundred students, ages 9 to 12, into two groups. The first were directed to perform “acts of kindness” and record those. The other group tracked pleasant places they visited through the week. After four weeks, the children reported on their happiness levels. Predictably, those children concentrating on behaving in a kind way proved happier than the other group. Furthermore, the “kind” group enjoyed significantly more popularity and acceptance by their peers. Researchers concluded that there might be important educational benefits achieved if pre-teen students are encouraged to engage in pro-social classroom activities.

In a wider context this is additional evidence that people experience positive feedback loops when they act kindly toward each other. In other words, however we define “emotional health,” it is enhanced when we are kind to each other.

Finally, on Aug. 15, 2012, the University of Colorado Press published a book titled: “Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects in the End of Anthropology.” According to the essays assembled in this book edited by Neil Whitehead and Michael Wesch, we human beings are undergoing a profound change in the way we relate to each other. We are becoming emotionally alienated because of our growing dependence on digital communication. The day may be coming when those “higher emotions” that make us so proud to be human are replaced by emotional ties to unseen sources on the other end of our digital devices.

So, what do we conclude from all this? Truth is, there’s not much new here. We know, intuitively, that there’s a lot more to animal emotion than meets the eye and we have more in common than we suspect. We also know that we’re happier when we get along with each other. And we know we’re spending too much time with our gizmos. It’s just interesting when science catches up with the rest of us. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.

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  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Why poverty across the world matters to Americans

    A child starving in South Sudan should matter to Americans. That was the message delivered last week by Nancy Lindborg, whose job at the U.S. Agency for International Development is to lead a federal bureau spreading democracy and humanitarian assistance across the world.
    That world has reached a critical danger zone, with three high-level crises combining military conflict with humanitarian catastrophes affecting millions of innocents in Syria, the South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
    But back to that child.

    April 18, 2014

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    April 18, 2014

  • My best days are ones normal people take for granted

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    “I started the first wall,” she says. “I love that gray.” Erin never bugs me about sleeping late. For a few months after I was injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, I often slept 15 hours a day. The doctors said my body needed to heal. It must still be healing because I hardly ever see 8 a.m. anymore.

    April 18, 2014

  • Instead of mothballing Navy ships, give them to our allies

    A bitter debate has raged in the Pentagon for several months about the wisdom of taking the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington out of service to save money. The Washington, at 24 years old a relatively young vessel, is due for a costly refit, a routine procedure that all of the 11 large carriers in service undergo regularly.

    April 18, 2014

  • The pessimist’s guide to grizzly bears and Earth Day

    This coming Friday, to “celebrate Earth Day,” the Walt Disney Co. will release one of those cutesy, fun-for-all-ages, nature documentaries. “Bears” is about grizzly bears.
    The trailer says, “From DisneyNature comes a story that all parents share. About the love, the joy, the struggle and the strength it takes to raise a family.”
    Talk about your misguided “Hollywood values.” I previously have acknowledged a morbid, unreasonable fear of grizzly bears, stemming from a youth misspent reading grisly grizzly-attack articles in Readers Digest. This fear is only morbid and unreasonable because I live about 1,500 miles from the nearest wild grizzly bear. Still. ...

    April 16, 2014

  • Digging out of the CIA-Senate quagmire

    Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., voted to declassify parts of its report on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. The White House, the CIA and the Senate still have to negotiate which portions of the report will be redacted before it is made public. But this is an important step in resolving the ugly dispute that has erupted between the intelligence committee and the intelligence agency.
    The dispute presents two very serious questions. Was the program consistent with American values and did it produce valuable intelligence? And is effective congressional oversight of secret activities possible in our democracy?

    April 15, 2014

  • Los Angeles Times: Congress extend jobless benefits again

    How’s this for irony: Having allowed federal unemployment benefits to run out in December, some lawmakers are balking at a bill to renew them retroactively because it might be hard to figure out who should receive them. Congress made this task far harder than it should have been, but the technical challenges aren’t insurmountable. Lawmakers should restore the benefits now and leave them in place until the unemployment rate reaches a more reasonable level.

    April 14, 2014

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    Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Yoram Ettinger recently spoke to a gathering at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning in Oklahoma City. The event began with a presentation by Rabbi Ovadia Goldman, who told the attendee that the  upcoming Jewish holiday of Passover was an occasion for them to embrace the children of God, which is all of humanity.

    April 14, 2014

  • Coming soon: More ways to get to know your doctor

    Last week, the federal government released a massive database capable of providing patients with much more information about their doctors.
    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the government agency that runs Medicare, is posting on its website detailed information about how many visits and procedures individual health professionals billed the program for in 2012, and how much they were paid.
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    April 14, 2014

  • HEY HINK: Hateful bullies attempt to muffle free speech

    Hopefully we agree it should be a fundamental right to voice criticism of any religion you wish. And you should have the right to sing the praises of any religion you choose. If criticism of religion is unjust, feel free to make your best argument to prove it. If criticism is just, don’t be afraid to acknowledge and embrace it. If songs of praise are merited, feel free to join in. If not, feel free to ignore them. But no American should participate in curbing free speech just because expression of religious views makes someone uncomfortable.

    April 11, 2014


Do you agree with a state budget proposal that takes some funds away from road and bridge projects to ramp up education funding by $29.85 million per year until schools are receiving $600 million more a year than they are now? In years in which 1 percent revenue growth does not occur in the general fund, the transfer would not take place.

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