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.