Being a dog-person (meaning “I really like dogs” and not “I’m part-man, part-dog”), I’ve always wondered if dogs could experience the same emotions that we humans do.
If you’re a dog-owner like I am, you might think that the answer is pretty simple. When I come home to my parents’ house on the weekend and see my aspin Hector wagging his tail, jumping around and then licking my feet, I conclude that he’s happy to see me. This guy has truly craved my company during the five or so days that I’ve been gone, I would think, and then thank the heavens for creating a source of unconditional love that I can touch and pet the whole afternoon without feeling weird about it.
But does Hector really love me? Do our pets possess the ability to return the affection we give them? Research from ethology, the animal kingdom’s version of psychology, tells us that for canine companions at least, the answer is yes.
Scanning the brains of dogs has revealed that canines have the same biological parts and neurological capabilities for basic emotions that humans do. Add to that the fact that dogs also release the love or ‘bonding’ hormone oxytocin in their system, giving them the ability to feel and express affection both for their fellow dogs and their human companions. So yes, dogs are capable of love, at least the kind of love that babies feel for their mothers and vice versa. Joining the range of dog emotions are joy (duh!), shyness, anger, fear, disgust, contentment, distress, and excitement (another duh!). I’m not sure about cats and other members of the animal world, however.
But that is where the similarities between dog feelings and human feelings end. Dogs’ brains are not as advanced as human brains. And human beings develop their emotions further through social interaction, creating guilt (“Oh no! I’ve taken advantage of my friend. I feel like such a bad person.”) and shame (“Oh no! I’ve gotten someone pregnant. What will my family and friends think?”). Cultural and cross-cultural psychology also tell us that our respective cultures inform the kind of emotions we feel. For example, Japanese children have been shown to feel fear towards punishments from their parents more so than American kids. And in the Philippines, there’s this concept of utang-na-loob or that feeling that you are compelled to return a favor someone has done for you, among many others. The message seems to be that the more complex the biology and the interaction-systems of a creature or being, the more kinds of emotions that being feels.
This makes me question if the emotions that human beings feel cover the entirety of emotions that have ever existed in the universe. We assume that human beings, being at the top of the evolutionary pyramid (if that’s even true in the first place), also contain all the feelings that any being in the cosmos can possibly feel. But if we take our brains into consideration, we discover that the parts of the brain and the endocrine system responsible for emotions are really not that large and may be quite limited. The amygdala, that part of the brain that seats the seven universal emotions (happiness, surprise, disgust, contempt, sadness, fear, and anger) is the size of a cashew nut. The hypothalamus, responsible for feelings of love, matches the size of an almond. Can we take a pause and reflect how these things that make us human can be compared to what we eat in Growers nut packs we buy from convenience stores?
What I’m getting at is that it may be possible that other emotions exist outside current human capacity. Because our brain and our hormone-system are limited, we might not have access to these theoretical emotions just yet. Our body limits the kind and the level of emotions we feel as living things.
If dogs and other animals are deprived of certain emotions because of these limitations, who is to say that human beings are not being deprived of other, possibly higher emotions?
Druggies might tell you that they have felt things no ordinary person can feel. But what drugs usually do is either heighten or dull emotions or mix them together simultaneously. And these druggies experience the same limitations the rest of humanity suffer from brain-wise so I don’t think drugs really count.
I really don’t have any answers to these questions I’m posing. Only intelligent guesses. For example, if aliens really do exist and they have more complex nervous and hormone systems than we do, then they might feel things we don’t. And if we go the Transpersonal Psychology route, perhaps bringing our consciousness beyond the body and transcending physical limitations will allow us to experience these theoretical emotions. If we think from the lens of spirituality, maybe dying and transforming into a purely spiritual being gives us access to these emotions. Who really knows?
I don’t think it’s silly to imagine a possible richer inner world that’s beyond our grasp for the moment. But hopefully, as technology and research advance through time and human effort, we’ll find out for sure.