What Animals are Thinking and Feeling, and Why It Should Matter: Carl Safina at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

We start with a simple question: “Does my pet really love me, or does she just want a treat?” Obviously, she really loves us. Obviously, right? How do we know what’s really going on in those furry little heads? Something is going on. Why is the question always “Do they love me?” Why is it always about us? Why are we such narcissists? I have a different question. Who are you? That’s a better question for animals, I think.

We have things going on in our minds that we tend to assume are the exclusive abilities of humans. But there are other brains out there. Some of them are very big. What are they doing with those big brains? Can they think? Can they feel? How can we possibly find a way into that question?

Well, there are ways in. We can look at the brain, we can look at evolution, and we can look at behaviors. First thing we have to realize is that our mind is inherited. Our brain comes from somewhere else. Jellyfish had the first nerves. The first nerves gave us the first spinal cords. The first spinal cords became the first vertebrates. Vertebrates came out of the ocean and started creating all kinds of trouble. It’s still true that nerves of a fish, or a dog, or a person, all are basically the same. It’s their organization that matters.

But if the nerves are the same, what does it have to say about the possibility of mental experiences? Something like a crayfish, for instance. It turns out that you can give a crayfish anxiety disorder by giving it little electric shocks every time it tries to come out of its burrow. But if you give it the same drug that is used to treat anxiety disorder in humans, the crayfish relaxes, mellows out, and comes out, and starts exploring.

The same thing with dogs with obsessive compulsive disorder: you give them the same drugs used to treat OCD in humans, it works for them too. What does it have to say about the parallel functionings of our brains? Do we celebrate the anxiety of crayfish? No, mostly we just boil them. Octopuses use tools, as well as do most apes. They recognize human faces. Do we celebrate the ape-like minds of octopi? Mostly we boil them. When grouper fish chase a prey fish into a crevice in the coral, they will go to where they know a moray eel is sleeping, and they will signal to the moray, “Follow me!” The moray goes. The moray will slither into the crevice. Sometimes the moray will get the fish. Sometimes the fish bolts, and the grouper gets it. It’s a partnership.

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How do we celebrate the partnership between groupers and moray eels? Mostly fried. Sea otters use stone tools, and sea otters take time away from their own doings to teach baby sea otters what to do. Chimpanzees use tools, but chimpanzees don’t take time to teach. Killer whales teach, and they share food. When we look at human brains, we see that the human brain is an elaboration on earlier brains, an elaboration that comes through the long sweep of evolution.

If you look at the human brain and a chimpanzee brain, you see that the human brain is basically a very big chimpanzee brain. It’s big at least, so we can retain a certain insecure sense of our own superiority, which is the main thing that matters to us. But, uh-oh, there is a dolphin brain – bigger, more convolutions. What is it doing with that brain? We can see brains, but cannot see minds. Yet, we can see the workings of minds in the logic of behaviors.

These elephants in this family of elephants have found a shady patch under the palms. That’s a good place to let the babies go to sleep. The adults are resting too, but they are just dozing, and they are staying a little bit vigilant all the time. We make sense of that, because they make sense of the world in similar ways. They look relaxed because they are relaxed. They’ve chosen the shade for the same reason we would choose the shade.

These elephants don’t look relaxed. No one would make that mistake looking at them. They seem alarmed. They are alarmed. There are dangers. There are people who hurt them. It turns out that, if you record the conversations of tourists and you record the conversations of herders, who sometimes hurt elephants, and then you play it through a hidden speaker, the elephants ignore the tourists, but they bunch up and flee in fear from the conversations of herders. They put different kinds of humans in different categories. They know what’s going on. They know who their friends are; they know who their enemies are; they know who their family members are; they have the same imperatives that we have.

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Whether on land or in the sea, it’s the same: stay alive, keep your babies alive, let life continue. We see and understand helping. We see curiosity in the young. We see the bonds of family members. We recognize affection for what it is. Courtship is courtship. People sometimes still ask: “But are they conscious?” Well, when you get general anesthesia, you become unconscious. It means that all of your sensory input is stopped. You have no sensation of the world around you. That’s unconscious.

When you have sensation of the world around you, you are conscious. Consciousness is very widespread. Some people think that empathy is a very special thing that only humans have. But empathy is simply the mind’s ability to match the mood of your companions. It’s very useful, and it’s very important. You have to know what’s going on around you, what everybody is doing. The oldest kind of empathy is called contagious fear. If you are with a bunch of companions, and they suddenly all startle and leave, it’s not very good for you to be staying there, saying, “Hey, I wonder why everybody has just left?”

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