Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

Animal feelings part 1: What's an emotion anyway?

Last week I was asked to give a lecture on the very interesting topic of “how to find out what animals are feeling”. Today, I thought I’d go through my thinking in regards to the question and talk about some of the things to come out of the lecture. 

Let's start off by asking: what's a feeling, or emotion, anyway?. When I posed this question to the class the residing feeling was that they are some kind of externalised mental state. In other words, you can’t feel an emotion without showing it in your body/on your face somehow. I then asked: is it possible to not show emotions outwardly? With the response of: you can, but you’d be suppressing it. 

If we look at the psychology literature, there are a number of theories about what emotions are and how they work. William James thought that we have physiological reactions (e.g. heart beating faster, sweating) to things in our environment (e.g. a barking dog) and when we consciously perceive those changes, we feel an emotion (e.g. fear). This even at first glance seems odd to a lot of people. Mainly because we report feeling an emotion before anything goes on in our body. In contrast, Cannon and Bard thought that something in our environment simultaneously triggers physiological changes and an emotion. This idea seems better but it leaves out the cognitive, or ‘thinking’, bit of emotions. For this reason, Schachter suggested that the combination of physiological changes and how we perceive them results in emotion. The perception determines the type of emotion and the level of physiological arousal determines the intensity. 

 The three main psychological theories of emotion.

The three main psychological theories of emotion.

So how then do we draw all these ideas together into something we can work with? I suggest that emotions are a state of mind with neuronal (brain), physiological (body), cognitive (thought), subjective (it differs person to person/animal to animal), motivational (why I do something) and conscious (‘awake’) components. This might seem like a stupidly long list of things to include in a definition, but you’ll see in my next post that we need to think about all these aspects when we design a way of testing to see if/which emotions animals feel.