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What animals teach us about ourselves

Trans-species Psychology to the Fore

Lots of people talk to animals…. Not very many listen, though….That’s the problem – The Tao of Pooh

 

My colleague talks with her parrot. Talks with, not to Henrietta. A lot of conversation revolves around the usual family things−what’s for dinner, what everyone did during the day, who’s seeing whom (and who isn’t), the weather, and can’t we have that yummy dessert tonight? The two best friends also talk about how they are feeling, philosophy, and how to navigate the stress that afflicts hearts and souls of everyone on the planet.

 

Talking with the animals may sound like a page out of Dr. Doolittle, but these encounters can no longer be shrugged off as just-so stories. Once upon a time, science depicted our animal kin as wind-up bundles of neurons and muscles poised to react only when stimulated by the right kind of signal-a fang-baring lion, the smell of a flower, or some unthinking, ancestral impulse that prompts a mother to care for the nuzzling infant at her side. Animals did not think, let alone feel.

 

No more. Science has made a complete 180-degree turn in perception and concept when it comes to animal minds. Diverse disciplines have reached the same conclusion. Animals have brains and minds like humans, and communing and conversing with the family dog, cat, or parrot is as natural and scientifically plausible as a therapist talking shop with an associate.

 

Instead of counting species differences, today’s scientists are in the business of tallying up human similarities to whales, elephants, parrots, chimpanzees, and more−including, some insist, invertebrates. For instance, take the ungainly octopus. They may look other-worldy but octopi have distinct personalities, a sense of humour, and invent clever ways to dupe and delight their keepers to pass time in the confines of their captive homes. A grand nineteen personality traits have been reported in a study conducted at the Seattle Aquarium whose tentacled residents include gentle Larry, the reclusive Emily Dickinson, and taciturn Lucretia. From genes to behaviour to brains, we are kin under the skin with furred, feathered, scaled, and finned members of the animal kingdom.

 

Welcome to the Trans-species World and welcome to Trans-species Psychology.

 

Trans-species psychology is a new field that looks at myriad processes, feelings, and states that make up what we call psyche through a single, species-inclusive lens. Instead of parsing off humans from all other creatures, science endorses a unitary model of brain and mind that serves you, me and even Henrietta and Lucretia.

 

Brain scientists confirm that what goes on inside conforms to what ethologists observe on the outside–the tender ministrations and cooing of a mother parrot sculpt her peeping infant’s neuroendocrinal pathways that govern affect and stress regulation in much the same way as attachment pioneer John Bowlby, and his intellectual descendent, Allan Schore, describe for humans. Likewise, therapies that help heal human psychological wounds apply to parrots and pachyderms who face similar challenges when recovering from abuse. Trans-species science says inference goes both ways: what we learn about Henrietta the parrot, Billy Jo the chimpanzee, and Imenti the elephant informs us about ourselves and vice versa.

 

In this blog, we explore how much there is to be learned from our animal kin. Psychology was built on models of human-animal separation and difference. Their replacements–models of integration and similarity–herald a dramatic re-framing and give new meaning to the study of the mind. Not so long ago, society came to accept that the earth was round, forcing mapmakers to re-position continents and seas. Today’s geography of the mind has also changed. In so doing, long-held assumptions that once seemed immutable are now subject to scrutiny and reflection. Trans-species understanding is part of an emergent intellectual and ethical paradigm shift inviting participation from all animals.

 

The title of this column, Bear in Mind is a reminder that humans have more than genes in common with bears, turkeys, turtles, and other animals. Thoughts and feelings have ancestral roots that extend as deep as those related in body. To dialogue with another species is a way to remember who we were before humanity thought of itself apart from nature.

 

As Pooh Bear advises, it’s time to start listening to animal kin.

1 Comment

  • Amber Douglas

    Native Americans have acknowledged and revered this connection for eons. Having spent summers on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation taught me their wisdom and respect for the animal kingdom, and further solidified my belief in the human-animal theory of mind connection. Moreover, my “belief” transcends mere cognitive musings into actual experience of this metaphysical, metacommunicative phenomenon, listening with intent and a desire to understand the messages I am receiving. Where humans fail is our own fear and judgment, our arrogance and thirst for power and control, and erroneously anthropomorphizing animal behavior and emotions for our own narcissistic delight. Rather we should be attempting to learn their unique languages and experiences of this big world we all share, acknowledging our “species privilege” and the immense damage we have caused many, many species of animals, and demoting ourselves from the audacious position of being the smartest mammal on the planet to maybe somewhere in the top ten at best.

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