What can animals' survival instincts tell us about understanding human emotion?

February 22, 2012, New York University

Can animals' survival instincts shed additional light on what we know about human emotion? New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux poses this question in outlining a pioneering theory, drawn from two decades of research, that could lead to a more comprehensive understanding of emotions in both humans and animals.

In his essay, which appears in the journal Neuron, LeDoux proposes shifting scientific focus "from questions about whether emotions that humans consciously feel are also present in other and towards questions about the extent to which circuits and corresponding functions that are present in other animals are also present in humans."

The neurological common ground between humans and animals includes brain functions used for survival. It is here, LeDoux contends, that researchers may gain new insights into both humans' and animals' emotions.

"Survival circuit functions are not causally related to , but obviously contribute to these, at least indirectly," he writes. "The survival circuit concept integrates ideas about emotion, motivation, reinforcement, and arousal in the effort to understand how organisms survive and thrive by detecting and responding to challenges and opportunities in daily life. Included are circuits responsible for defense, energy and nutrition management, fluid balance, thermoregulation, and procreation, among others."

LeDoux acknowledges that research on feelings is "complicated because feelings cannot be measured directly. We rely on the outward expression of , or on verbal declarations by the person experiencing the feeling, as ways of assessing what that person is feeling. This is true both when scientists do research on emotions and when people judge emotions in their social interactions with one another."

We are even more limited in interpreting animals' emotions.

"When a deer freezes to the sound of a shotgun we say it is afraid, and when a kitten purrs or a dog wags its tail, we say it is happy," writes LeDoux, who is also director of the Emotional Brain Institute, part of the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research. "We use words that refer to human subjective feelings to describe our interpretation of what is going on in the animal's mind when it acts in way that has some similarity to the way we act when we have those feelings."

But while he concedes that "we will never know what an animal feels," the basis for our interpretations of their emotions could eventually become more informed.

"If we can find neural correlates of conscious feelings in humans—and distinguish them from correlates of unconscious emotional computations in survival circuits—and show that similar correlates exists in homologous brain regions in animals, then some basis for speculating about animal feelings and their nature would exist," LeDoux posits.

LeDoux, a professor in NYU's Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, has worked on emotion and memory in the brain for more than 20 years. His research, mostly on fear, shows how we can respond to danger before we know what we are responding to. It has also shed light on how emotional memories are formed and stored in the brain. Through this research, LeDoux has mapped the neural circuits underlying fear and fear memory through the brain, and has identified cells, synapses, and molecules that make emotional learning and memory possible.

In addition to numerous publications in scholarly journals, LeDoux has published books that present his work to a wider audience, including The Emotional Brain (Simon and Schuster, 1998), which focuses mainly on emotion, and Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (Viking, 2002), which casts a broader net into the areas of personality and selfhood.

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not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
After 20 years of research, you'd think this researcher might be a little more decisive about the emotions of animals. In my experience with dogs, they've exhibited emotions that correlate directly to the SAME emotions that humans feel. They also love to play, and while in puppyhood makes them as playful as children, and if they could laugh, they certainly would- out of happiness.
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
Oh, OK. But if you want to understand human emotions, why not just study humans? What is the purpose of the experiment? To study human emotions in relation to animal emotions?
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
The researcher's whole perspective is skewed because he believes there's a great divide between the human animal and the four-legged animal. Human survival mechanisms include "sniffing" the motives of human strangers before relaxing suspicion, and readying oneself to pounce on a threatening-looking human when paths cross.
not rated yet Feb 23, 2012
It's all too silly, I've met pigeons that were more intelligent than some folks these days. We like to think we are above non-humans because we have an ego, but in reality, we are the only species capable of lying to ourselves.

You won't find anything _not_ human that deludes itself with the illusions of grandeur that humans hold so sacrosanct.

Put that in the 'ol pipe de philosophie


not rated yet Feb 23, 2012
Dogs do laugh!
It's a type of panting distinct from that associated with physical exertion.

not rated yet Feb 23, 2012
Like Telekinetic, I find it strange that the author doesn't seem to tie his observations and descriptions in with those of some others that already seem to be providing a coherent understanding of what makes us tick. For example one major description of emotions per se is that they embody and manifest distinctive archetypal modes of quick response to major changes in our environment. In particular this means changes or the threat of changes to our fundamental life goals, and/or the people or things we need to achieve these goals.

Emotions as such are the instinctive patterns of orientation and response which happen way before we can think: anger- the self assertive inclination to fight back and refuse to submit; fear- the self preservative inclination to withdraw and avoid damage or death; joy- the self affirming recognition of good things happening; grief- expressing recognition of loss and its pain; surprise- expressing alertness to sudden change which is not obviously harmful.
not rated yet Feb 23, 2012
@ A Paradox:
You should also mention the twinge of jealousy when someone's articulated a point in a far more cogent manner than one's own meager attempt. Nice.
not rated yet Feb 24, 2012
the twinge of jealousy when someone's articulated a point in a far more cogent manner

well bro, somebody did just that! But it was at least 10 years ago in an article in New Scientist magazine. And I have a sneaking suspicion this Le Doux character may have been one of the authors. Although maybe one or more of them was from Oxford ... memory fails me.

But yes! The idea is really coherent isn't it! And they went on to assert that while emotion as such is everything entailed in galvanising a body into fast reaction to deal with one of these archetypal threats or changes, _mood_ on the other hand is a lesser and protracted manifestation of the initial emotion. The reasoning given was that when such a major change has occurred, or been fended off as the case may be, it is important for the creature in question to accept and adapt to the new status quo. This ensures that the creature/person doesn't revert to the previous orientation which could restart the crisis.

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