JOY Full Horses: Pt. 1: Ch 2 Animal Emotions – Affective Neuroscience

Joy Full Horses title page cover

If you are new to this series, this article is part of a book which I am publishing here on this site.  I suggest you begin with the first article published on January 2, 2016 https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/01/02/

 

Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions continued

In the previous section I introduced you to Virginia Morrel’s book “Animal Wise”.  In her book Morrell shares the work of scientists from all over the world who are doing pioneering work in the field of animal cognition.  That includes the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

ratAffective Neuroscience
Virginia Morrell gives a wonderful summary of Panksepp’s work in a chapter entitled “The Laughter of Rats”.  It’s a great primer to prepare you for Panksepp’s own books on Affective Neuroscience.  For those of you for whom this is a new term, Morrell supplies us with a simple definition: that’s the zone where neurons, emotions and cognition meet.  The question here is how does the brain generate emotional feelings and what impact (affect) do these feelings have on behavior?

Panksepp sees emotions as evolutionary skills that help animals survive and reproduce.  Evolution is a conservative process meaning structures tend to be preserved and reused rather than discarded.  We can use mice and rats in medical studies because their biochemistry is so similar to our own.  So why should we think the nervous system is any different when it comes to recycling existing structures?

Panksepp titled his second book “The Archaeology of the Mind”.  It’s a great title.  Just as an archaeologist can study past cultures by digging down through layers of sediment, the neuroscientist can study the evolution of cognition by going down through the layers of the brain.  We share the same ancient structures with all other species of mammals.  We are not separate from other animals.  We share a common heritage, and Panksepp now has evidence to support the idea that that means we also share common emotional experiences.

By electrically stimulating the brains of rats and guinea pigs Panksepp has identified seven emotional systems found in the mammalian subcortex.  These seven systems serve similar functions in the animals he has studied.  When he talks about these systems he writes them in capital letters to differentiate them from our vernacular use of these terms.  I will follow this practice here.

The Seven Affective Emotional Systems
The SEEKER System is the most primitive and extensive of the seven systems. The SEEKER circuit is activated when a healthy animal explores it’s environment.  It needs to know where it’s resources are, where to look for food and water, shelter and mates.  When people talk about the SEEKER circuit, they often use someone’s love of shopping as a modern example of this system in action.

Karen Pryor has speculated that the SEEKER system is activated by clicker training.  That’s why we see such enthusiasm and eagerness to engage in the training.  It isn’t so much about the food that comes after the click, as it is the hunt for the right solution.

It’s easy to see how the SEEKER system applies to dogs and other predators.  They have to hunt for their prey, so it’s no wonder dogs love clicker training.  But horses?  They live on a carpet of grass.  How does this relate to them?

Even horses need a strong SEEKER System.  They may live on a carpet of grass, but they still need to find the bits that haven’t been recently grazed.  They need to know where the water holes are, especially in a dry climate.  They need to know where to find shelter in a storm, and what the best routes are out of a canyon should they be chased by predators.

I came to appreciate the SEEKER system in a rather odd way.  I don’t know about you, but I am a mouse rescuer.  When one of my cats comes parading past me with a mouse or baby rabbit dangling out of her mouth, another of Panksepp’s primary systems sends me into action.  The nurturing CARE system makes it impossible for me to see an animal in distress without wanting to do something about it.  Yes, I know mice are considered pests and all that, but mice also have emotional lives.  They are amazing creatures.

A Courageous Mouse

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I’m going to digress for a moment.  At the new barn we use an O2 composting system for the manure.  Instead of creating a  large manure pile somewhere – hopefully out of sight – and leaving it over a period of a year or more to rot down, manure goes into a cement bay.  When the bay is filled, a pump forces air through the pile.   You can see how this is done by looking at the photo.  The empty bay in the middle shows two rows of wooden slats. These cover a trough in the floor.  Air is pumped into this trough and up into the pile through holes drilled in the slats.   This not only speeds up the composting process, the intense heat from the rotting manure kills weed seeds, insects and parasites.  In three months it can produce a high quality compost that can go directly back onto the fields as fertilizer or into the garden.  And because the manure is contained throughout the process in the cement bays, there’s no unsightly muck heap in the barn yard.

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Some of the flowers produced by the compost

We don’t have a tractor so when a bay is ready to be emptied, I do that by hand – wheel barrow by wheel barrow.  It’s a time consuming process but well worth the effort.  As I shovel in yet another wheel barrow full of compost, I think of the flowers that will be growing out of it later.

One cool fall day I was emptying the composter, digging in with my pitch fork when I disturbed a mother mouse and her nest filled with babies.  She scurried out from under my pitch fork with seven almost-grown babies clinging to her belly.   She ran up what was for her a mountain of manure to the top of the composter.

There she was confronted with a sheer cliff many times higher aa composter pilethan herself.  One of her babies had lost it’s grip.  She paused just long enough to give it time to reattach itself to her belly, and then she scaled the cement wall, ran across the wooden planks of the walkway at the back of the composter, and disappeared into the safety of the mouse tunnels she must have known she would find on the other side.

I was in awe.  What courage. Am I projecting human emotions onto a mouse?  Maybe. But I will still call it heroic what she did, especially pausing long enough to carry all of her babies to safety.  She could so easily have left that one behind to save the others.  She could have kept herself safe and simply abandoned them all.  We have much to learn from the dedication of that little mouse to all of her offspring.

The Cat Dilemma
So when one of my cats come meowing proudly through the house showing off some little mouse that she has brought back for me, I turn into a rescuer. But I am always in a quandary.  I hate the way a cat will play with a mouse before she kills it.  I want to rescue the mouse and set it free.  But am I really doing it a favor?  Who knows how far the cat has come.  When I release the mouse, will it be able to find it’s way back to the safety of its nest, or am I condemning it to a slow death by starvation?

I always do rescue the mouse, but for years I worried if this was really the best thing to do.  And then at one of my clinics I got the answer.  During our Friday evening introductions, one of the participants said he was a field biologist.  He looked the part.  I could easily see him tromping through the woods of northern Minnesota, radio tracking equipment on his back, following a pack of wolves.  I’m sure you can conjure up your own picture based on all the nature programs you’ve watched on TV.  I asked him what species he studied.  His answer: mice.

“Oh,” piped up another attendee, “Are you an exterminator?”

Hardly.  It turns out he loves mice.  He was studying an endangered species that lives in the coastal sand dunes of North Carolina.  Here was the perfect person to ask about my dilemma.  Was I doing the mice I rescued any favor.  I was very much delighted to hear that, yes absolutely, the mice would know how to orient back to their nests and stored food supplies.

It turns out mice can travel huge distances over the course of a single night.  They are updating the map of their territories.  They need to know where their resources are.  Where is the grass that is about to seed, the berries that are about to ripen?  Hearing this gave me a much deeper understanding of the SEEKER system and the primary role it plays in an animal’s life.

To be continued . . .

In the next installment I’ll continue to explore the Seven Affective Emotional Systems identified by Jaak Panksepp.  Next up is RAGE.

JOY Full Horses: Part 1: Why Play?

Joy Full Horses title page coverI’ve teased you with an introduction to this book, and with the Table of Contents.  Now finally here is Part 1: Why Play!

This is a short section – just to get your feet wet.  Enjoy!

 

 

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Part One: Why Play?

Panda scrabble - leaning against me

When science and art come together,
they become indistinguishable from play.

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Chapter 1: Mammals Play

Fengur Sindri rearing 5:19:13

 

Airplane Reading
When you travel by plane as often as I do, you begin to know all the major airports in the country.  I can tell you which ones have free internet access and electrical outlets at your seat, and which ones force you to sit on the floor to recharge your computer.  I can tell you which airports have decent food and which ones assume that the entire traveling public wants to eat junk food.  I can also tell you where all the good bookstores are.  I enjoy browsing through airport bookstores.  Instead of feeling overwhelmed by an overabundance of choice in the mega bookstores, the airport bookstores are confined to cubbyhole spaces.  They give you just a small sampling of what is current and popular.

What I want for traveling is what I call airplane reading – nothing too heavy.  I mean that both physically – I may have a long walk between gates and my backpack is already weighed down with my computer and camera equipment.  And I also want something that’s light enough reading to let me dip in and out as I nap on the plane.

I often check out the business and science sections where I’ll find titles that might not otherwise have crossed my radar.  That’s how I spotted a book on play, called appropriately enough “Play”.  For a long time, whenever I referred to this book, I could never remember the author’s name.  I finally tracked down my copy for the express purpose of being able to reference the author in a talk I was preparing.  It was written by Stuart Brown.

Stuart Brown. How was I going to remember that?

Stuart is easy.  Stuart is Stuart Little from E.B. White’s charming children’s book.  And if we are thinking about children’s books, then, of course, we have Paddington Bear, and that gives you the author’s name. Not sure of the connection?  Paddington Bear lived with the Browns.  Hence Stuart Brown.

That’s a playful way to remember the author of a book on Play.

Stuart Brown book covers

Why Do Animals Play?
Stuart Brown is an M.D. who has studied play.  In his book he posed an interesting question.  Play carries with it enormous metabolic costs and genetic risks.  Two horses playing mock stallion battles are not only expending a great deal of energy, they are exposing themselves to possible injury.  In the wild if they miscalculate and one of them is injured, that horse could very quickly be out of the gene pool.  So given this, why is play so prevalent?  It’s not just people and puppies who play.  You’ll find play behavior across all species of mammals.

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It’s not my intention here to give a detailed review of Brown’s book.  The main point he was making is that regardless of the evolutionary forces that led to the prevalence of play, what we are left with is this conclusion: play is important for the development of healthy brains.

When you compare brain scans of individuals who have been play deprived with those who are living in enriched environments with many opportunities for play, you see a marked difference.  Should you wish to, I’ll leave it to you to explore this in more detail.  You can begin with the lighter read of Brown’s book and then move on to the work of neuroscientist and play specialist, Jaak Panksepp.  And if you want even more, their books will give you plenty of additional references to explore.

The launching point for what I’ll be covering is this basic premise: play is important for healthy brains.  That means it is important for our horses, and, equally, it is important for us.  As I explore what play means in the context of training, I will be focusing my attention on both ends of the lead rope. I’ll be looking at what it means for both the horse and the handler to be engaging in play.

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Part 1: Chapter 2:  Animal Emotions

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Bob Viviano and Crackers – Great partners who knew how to play and to share their connection with others.

Is Your Training Fun?
When we think about clicker training, we often think about play.  After all, we’re often using clicker training to teach some very playful behaviors.  But just because you are having your horse kick a beach ball, doesn’t necessarily mean either one of you is having fun.  If you’re so caught up in the science behind the training, if you’re thinking about what the discriminative stimulus is for kicking the ball and whether you should be using a least reinforcing stimulus after that last miss, your brain may be processing the interaction in a way that’s a long way away from play.

If you’re concentrating on your handling skills, if you’re thinking about the timing of your click, and whether your hand is staying out of the treat pouch between clicks, again you may be a long way away from play.  It’s easy to get so caught up in “getting things right” that play drops out of the equation.  The function of these articles is to remind you that we need to keep bringing play back to the forefront of our training.

I mentioned Jaak Panksepp earlier.  His work is getting a great deal of attention at the moment within the clicker community.  Karen Pryor gets the credit for this.  Karen Pryor is one of the very early pioneers in clicker training.  Her book, “Don’t Shoot the Dog” has introduced thousands of people to this modern form of animal training.  Karen wanted to know what the neuroscientists could tell us about how the click is processed in the brain. In her book, “Reaching the Animal Mind” she talked about the SEEKER system, one of the seven primary emotional states Panksepp has identified.  It is the SEEKER system that Pryor attributes to the enthusiasm and – dare I say it – joy we see in our clicker-trained animals.

Animal Wise
Panksepp has been studying what was once a forbidden area in science – emotions in animals.  Here’s another “airplane” book I’ll recommend, Animal Wise by Virginia Morell.  Morrell begins her book with the following:

“Animals have minds.  They have brains, and use them, as we do: for experiencing the world, for thinking and feeling, and for solving the problems of life every creature faces.  Like us, they have personalities, moods, and emotions; they laugh and they play.  Some show grief and empathy and are self-aware and very likely conscious of their actions and intents.

Not so long ago, I would have hedged these statement, because the prevailing notion held that animals are more like robotic machines, capable of responding with only simple, reflexive behaviors.  And indeed there are still researchers who insist that animals are moving through life like the half dead, but those researchers are so 1950s. They’ve been left behind as a flood of new research from biologists, animal behaviorists, evolutionary and ecological biologists, comparative psychologists, cognitive ethologists, and neuroscientists sweeps away old ideas that block the exploration of animal minds.  The question is now not “Do animals think?”  It’s “How and what do they think?”

Hurray!  Finally people are coming around to my view of animals as intelligent, very aware beings with rich emotional lives.  I know this goes against strong cultural biases.  But where did this notion that animals do not think come from?  Why do scientists have such a horror of being accused of being anthropomorphic (attributing human mental abilities to an animal)? How can we deny the evidence we see in every interaction we have with our horses, with our cats and dogs?

Outdated Belief Systems
Morrell points out in her introduction that this idea that animals do not think or have emotions as we know them is an old one. Aristotle did not believe that animals could think rationally, but he did at least grant that they experienced physical sensations such as hunger and pain, and they could be angry.

It turns out that Aristotle represented an “enlightened” view of animals – even with all of it’s limitations.   Later philosophers denied that “animals had any thoughts, emotions, or sensations and therefore we did not need to extend any moral consideration to them.” (Morrell)

Belief systems are a curious thing.  There’s that wonderful line that crops up during political discussions: you wouldn’t want a little thing like facts to get in the way of a good argument.  It applies here, as well. Belief systems become self supporting.  We tend to attract experiences that support our belief systems.  I find it beyond comprehension that anyone could deny the emotionally rich life that animals have.  You have only to sit on a panicked horse who has been separated from his herd to know very directly the emotions he’s feeling!

But I suppose there will be those who would say I’m just delusional.  I’m the one attracting evidence to support a faulty belief system.  Perhaps.  But I am no longer alone.  If you want a good read, add Animal Wise to your list.  Morrell has been visiting with scientists from all over the world who are doing pioneering work in the field of animal cognition.  That includes the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions: Affective Neuroscience

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com