Don’t get so emotional…

Posted on January 22, 2011


……this is a phrase that the Northerner often says to me after I’ve had one too many drinks. I’m guilty as charged, what can I say? I like to wear my heart on my sleeve.

But imagine if you couldn’t clearly express your emotional state. I for one would probably turn the colour of a beetroot and explode.

A friend of mine (Luton Boy) bought me a DVD of Planet of the Apes (click on the link for the trailer, it’s a beauty) for my birthday – the original, not the Mark Wahlberg version. The first time I saw it on television as a little girl, it left a huge impression on me.

Do you remember the scene where the late Charlton Heston, who plays Colonel George Taylor, is trying to communicate with the ape doctor? He’s been captured, put in a cage and has been so badly treated, he’s can’t speak because he’s lost his voice. That scene frightened the hell out of me. It all makes sense now, why I freaked out, because I’ve always been a chatterbox and I talk for a living.

At the beginning of this month I started a new module at university – Animal Behaviour and Cognition. We’ve been discussing whether animals are able to show emotions and mood states: pleasure; fear, sadness; love; jealousy; shame.

For the human race, we have the luxury of language to help us express our emotions. But trying to interpret this in animals, is difficult. Anyone who has a pet is probably guilty of anthropomorphism – giving human characteristics to an animal. Scientists on the whole, are much more detached, and will look for a simple answer to the way an animal behaves rather than attributing a human quality.

Aside from Dr Dolittle, scientists believe emotional awareness can be tested through various means – behavioural; physiological and cognitive tests – but there’s no guarantee any of these methods provide definitive answers.

Cognition can be described as the mental process of acquiring, processing, storing and acting on information from the surrounding environment. Cognition has been extensively researched in humans and there’s been a lot of evidence to prove our emotional states are influenced by cognitive functions. So for example when you’re scared, you may experience an increased heart rate; sweaty palms; pupil dilation; a facial grimace and the urge to run away.

Researchers who are interested in emotional processes in animals, often use changes in stress physiology as indicators of emotional states. This is because it can be measured by testing faecal samples for certain hormones that are released when adrenalin increases (through fear/pleasure – “stress”).

In class this week we were asked to look at a journal that was published last year into Pan (ape genus) thanatology – study of death. The method use by researchers to measure emotion, was strictly observation.

Following the publication of this journal, a controversial debate has opened up in the Primatological world. Can chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) recognise and feel emotion when they witness death? And if so, should elderly apes be allowed to die naturally in their family social settings than separating them for medical treatment or euthanasia?

Chimpanzees in Mefou Sanctuary, Cameroon © Ian Bickerstaff 2011

The journal that claims they do recognise and exhibit grief, was published in Current Biology by James Anderson et al (2010). It describes how a group of chimpanzees, deal with the death of an older female in captivity. Researchers filmed the final hours and the moment of death on camera. Group behaviour of the other chimpanzees in the same enclosure was also captured.

Via video recordings, the researchers claim the other group members showed pre-death care of the female; close inspection and testing for signs of life at the moment of death; male aggression towards the corpse; all-night attendance by the deceased’s daughter; cleaning the corpse; and later, avoidance of the place where the death occurred.

Anderson and his colleagues, concluded that these observations showed self-awareness by chimpanzees, empathy and cultural variations in many of their behaviours and that Pan thanatology appears both viable and valuable.

However this conclusion is not accepted universally by scientists. Stuart Semple et al., has argued that the behaviour documented in the journal is “at best anecdotal” and says research like this, should follow parsimony (the least complex explanation for an observation) rather than using emotive and subjective terminology which points towards anthropomorphism.

Semple and his colleagues claim people watching animals they know well, can easily misinterpret behaviour, based on what the observers believe the animals are feeling. They argue that objective data, rather than subjective impressions, is necessary and cite one example, the attack by the adult male on the dead female, as circumstantial.

In the journal the behaviour is likened,  to “attempted resuscitation”, Semple and his colleagues argue that the attack could have happened because the female was unable  to run away as she would normally do, if she was submissive and therefore low ranking, because she was dead. So her body was struck a number of times rather than it being a gesture of  “attempted resuscitation”.

There are more examples cited by Semple and his colleagues why they are sceptical about this research, they are posted on the comments page of the journal. It’s prompted a further interesting response by Anderson and colleagues.  Here’s the link if you’d like to read more – comment section of the Current Biology

There’s no denying emotions are hard to gauge even in people. How often do we misinterpret someone’s body language, only to be told by them later how they were feeling.

Language is a powerful tool and one Charlton Heston’s character found, was his get out of jail free card. So next time you’re feeling emotional, don’t be embarrassed about  saying so, you, unlike our closest relatives have the ability to express yourself, so embrace it. (That goes for the men too!!).

Reference:  Current Biology, 27 April 2010, Volume 20, Issue 8, R349 – R351

Posted in: My brain hurts!