Animal Thought and Emotion: A Glossary

A handy guide to the words you need to know to talk about the ways animals think and feel.

Empathy? Emotion? What is it these Laysan albatross are displaying? Let me explain….

Try to discuss non-human animals’ thoughts or emotions, and you quickly run into trouble. The main problem: there are no widely agreed-to definitions of things like consciousness or sentience. So people talk past each other. Often, people who think they are disagreeing about whether horses, say, are conscious, are actually having two separate monologues, because to each of them the word consciousness means something different.

In my book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, I knew I needed definitions early on. These definitions have helped me consider and discuss thoughts, emotions, and so on. I hope they’re helpful to you. This is a very quick intro to a very big topic that I delve deeply into in the book.

So without further ado, a few definitions:

Sentience is the capacity to feel something, to experience sensations. Everything else on this list below involves sentience.
Consciousness is the thing that feels like something. Any experience of any sensation indicates consciousness.
Perception is product the mind creates from incoming information from sensory organs.
Thought is the process of evaluating something that’s been perceived.
Emotion is how we feel about our perceptions.
Grief, an emotion, is the sense of loss for an individual you have known who is no longer there.
Cognition is the capacity to acquire knowledge and understanding.
Empathy is a mind’s ability to match moods with our companions.
Self-awareness is the understanding that we are distinct from others and from our surroundings.

All these mental capacities are interrelated in the mind. A mind, by the way, is the conscious aspect of brain function. We know the mind is located in the brain because brain damage alone is enough to destroy the mind.

What’s going on in the mind of this humpback whale? Credit: Carl Safina

Sentience, consciousness, and perception are closely linked. Sentience is the ability to have a conscious experience, and consciousness is one way of processing perception. Perception, meanwhile, happens in the brain, not in the sense organs. Sight doesn’t happen in our eyes, nor hearing in our ears. Perception is the mind’s processed product of impulses from sensory organs. The real world does not have color or warmth. It has electromagnetic energy waves and molecular motion. Electromagnetic waves enter the eye, and information from a tiny span of those waves (the so-called visible wavelengths, or “light”) get converted by the eye into impulses sent along the optic nerve, which enters the brain. The brain processes the impulses. So far in this rather mechanical description, our visual system resembles a motion detector. But then something rather miraculous happens: the brain creates vision, an image we are consciously aware of, an experience. The experience of vision, or of warmth, sound, taste, scent and so on is created by the brain, in the brain. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it’s in the mind.

Once we perceive something, we may evaluate it or have a feeling about it. The evaluation is thought, and the feeling is emotion. I’m not aware of categorizations of thoughts, but emotions have various names and cover an enormous range. Emotions are a kind of compass helping animals navigate the world. The north, south, east, and west of emotions might be comfort, discomfort, attraction, and repulsion. Emotions include of course senses of well-being, bonding, rage, fear, and so on. All evidence from brains and behavior, and the basic concept of living things — relatedness and evolutionary continuity — indicate that a vast array of animals are conscious and capable of a range of thought and emotions.

Both thoughts and emotions can create an urge to act, and that urge is a motivation. Here’s an example of everyday interplay of perception, thought, emotion, and motivation: My wife comes downstairs into our living room dressed to go visit our friends, and from how she appears to me I think, ‘wow she looks nice,’ and with that comes a warm and loving feeling, that motivates me to give her a kiss before we head out the door.

Empathy is a mind’s ability to match moods with our companions. The most basic form of empathy, contagious fear, is ancient and widespread among group-living animals from fishes through bird flocks to human crowds. The most specialized form of empathy is compassion, the urge to act from sympathy to help another. Grief involves missing an important individual who is no longer there. Grief, to borrow from Barbara J. King’s useful definition, can be observed when one who knew the missing individual alters their behavioral routine. They might eat or sleep less, or act listless or agitated. They might attend their friend or family member’s corpse. Humans, elephants, lemurs, ducks, dogs, and many others show varying degrees of empathy and grief.

A long-tailed duck too shows empathy and grief. Credit: Carl Safina

Self-awareness is the understanding that we are individuals operating distinctly from others, differentiated from the surroundings. Notably a standard test of an animal’s self-awareness, the mirror test, indicates whether an animal understands reflection, but that’s about all it can show. It is almost universally misinterpreted. Animals who attack or try to play with their reflected image are said to “lack” self-awareness, but they attack or play in the belief that they are interacting with an individual different from themselves — the definition of self-awareness!

Cognition, the capacity to acquire knowledge and understanding, relates closely to the most difficult of all these things to define: intelligence. Intelligence is not one thing; there are varied kinds of intelligence among people, cultures, and species.

Before we conclude, I’d like to emphasize that words for what happens in minds are not the same as what actually happens in minds. Making definitional distinctions between, say, thoughts and emotions helps us talk clearly about these things. But in reality the processes of the mind, and mind-and-body interplays, grade into one another. So keep in mind that words are labels we paste onto reality to help us talk about things. As with everything in the living world, processes of the mind meld, blend, braid, and loop back on themselves.

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Carl Safina’s most recent book, Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, is newly out in paperback.