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What do animals teach us about emotions?

For a neuroscientist like me, the inner workings of our emotional brain are as mysterious as the inner workings of a black hole must have looked like an astrophysicist like my late father. Looks like it’s a target. However, unlike black holes, we experience emotions in our daily lives, so it seems that everyone thinks they understand them. This discontinuity between what we actually know about emotions and what we think we know has led to considerable confusion and heated debate.

Some prominent brain researchers claim that “emotions” can only be studied in humans, not in animals. For us as pet owners, this position seems ridiculous. Isn’t it clear that our dogs and cats, including my cat, have emotions? Maybe, but intuition isn’t enough. Animals are not small people in furry costumes and can be fooled, so we must look for evidence.

We usually attribute it to animal species that can identify emotions. If the squirrel in Central Park freezes or runs away, you must be afraid. If you meet an animal that is 12 times taller than you, you will be afraid. But how can you be sure that without access to the inner surface of the animal, it is not just an indication of automatic reflexes? If Drosophila freezes or jumps, are they “feared”? If it’s just a reflection, why doesn’t it apply to squirrels?

The temptation to project our own emotions onto other species, especially other mammals, is strong. The monkeys playing with each other must be having fun. When a relative dies, the elephant’s eyes leak water. I think it’s sad. Our dog rolls on its back with its paws in the air. We conclude that they are happy to see us. Whales singing in the depths of the sea sound lonely, and lions roaring after killing must feel “victory.”

Do these playful golden monkeys have fun in Hubei, China, or do we tend to project emotions on them?


Jie Zhao / Corbis / Getty Images

But we are even happy to attribute our emotions to animals that are not like us. The captive octopus, whose color changes brilliantly when the children tap the aquarium, makes us believe that it expresses the stimulus. But it may simply be trying to match the skin color to the blinking reflexes of the human visitor. Moreover, if you claim that an octopus has emotions, why isn’t it the same for its mollusk cousin? When a scallop encounters a predatory starfish, it quickly opens and closes its shell while somersaulting for safety. Is it a panic? We often refer to bees swarming out of the hive to attack intruders as “angry.” If so, the fight against fruit flies (yes, even male fruit flies fight for females) is also “angry?” Or all of these diverse creatures have been incorporated into the brain by the age of evolution. Are you just performing an automatic survival action? This is not just an academic issue. Answers about animals may provide coveted assistance in the study of human mental health. Due to our lack of understanding of how the brain controls emotions, there have been few radically new medicines for treating mental illness in the last 50 years. In fact, most pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies give up searching after costly failures.

Current treatments for serious mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder remain inadequate, and effective treatments often have adverse side effects. Probably because most of such drugs flood the brain with chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. It’s like changing the car’s oil by opening the hood and pouring a can of lubricating oil over the entire engine, hoping that some will drip into the right place. Maybe so, but much of it permeates where it does more harm than good.

“”Even Drosophila can exhibit emotional states in escape behavior when repeatedly exposed to shadows passing overhead.

Human research on mental health and emotions usually relies on brain scans. However, such studies alone can only identify correlations, not causes and effects. To do this, you need to invade and confuse the brain, its neurons, and its circuits. For ethical reasons, this cannot be done with human subjects. Well-controlled neuroscience research on the emotions of laboratory animals is needed. In other words, we need to determine whether the behavior of a particular animal expresses emotions or is just an adaptive reflex.

Ralph Adolf, a colleague at the California Institute of Technology, and I argued that studying animal emotions requires studying beyond “emotions” because animals cannot convey emotions. Human conscious emotions are just the tip of the emotional iceberg of the brain. Below the surface we share with many other creatures is a huge unconscious part. The lower part of the surface contains the state of the internal brain, or the characteristic patterns of electrical and chemical activity. These brain states, which are components of emotions, are represented by behaviors that show clear signs that distinguish them from reflexes.

One such component is “scalability”. Emotional behavior often increases in intensity, from threats to attacks, or from snuffs to sobbing. In contrast, reflexes tend to be all-or-nothing. Another feature is “persistence”. Emotional behavior tends to prolong after the stimulating stimulus disappears, but the reflexes terminate quickly. And unlike reflexes, internal emotional states indicate “generalization.” Bad days in the human office affect how you react to a screaming child at home. Animals have the equivalent.

Recent studies have revealed evidence of these emotional states in the “fight or flight” response of both mice and fruit flies. For example, mice exposed to natural predators for short periods of time show prolonged avoidance of open spaces that last for several minutes and are persistent. In addition, as predators approach, their reaction escalate from avoidance to freezing, running, and jumping. Male mice exposed to predators delay the resumption of interrupted mating or feeding and show generalization until some time later. These indicators collectively suggest that the response to predators is likely not just a reflex, but a sign of an internal brain condition of defensive arousal or threat warning.

Even Drosophila can exhibit emotional states in their escape behavior when repeatedly exposed to shadows passing overhead (mimicking an approaching aerial predator). If surrounded by a transparent arena to prevent flies from flying away, the response will escalate with each successive shadow, from a bait break to running around the arena and flying like popcorn. .. These reactions continue for a few minutes after the shadow is over, as the flies gradually “calm down” and return to their diet. These little insects fly into the tree as they approach the feeding box and behave very much like birds that gradually return to their feeding after a while after the danger has passed.

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Once you have identified emotional behaviors in a particular species, you can use powerful new neuroscientific methods to understand how they are generated. In one such method, called optogenetics, a specific population of neurons is genetically modified to activate a protein that converts light into electricity. You can then activate or suppress neurons by simply pressing a switch that sends an optical pulse through a small optical fiber inserted into the brain. Using such a method, my lab and other labs found a small group of neurons in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus that controls the intensity and length of the fear and aggression states of mice. Did. Optogenetics cannot yet be performed in humans because the technical reasons and the long-term safety of the required genetic modification are not yet known.

A better understanding of the neurons, circuits, and chemistry that control internal emotional states may ultimately lead to the development of new drugs and brain stimulation therapies specifically for those neurons. Such a process is, in effect, like pouring oil on that part of the engine to which it belongs. To get there, you need to study the emotions of the animal.

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What do animals teach us about emotions?

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