Monday, December 21, 2020

The emotions of animals - and our human mental inference fallacy

This post continues Barrett's discussion of the implications of our new understanding of how emotions work, passing on some of her discussion of animal emotions in Chapter 12 of her book "How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain." The previous installment covered chapter 11, on emotion and the law.

I skip over Barrett’s discussion of the behaviors of monkeys, chimpanzees, dogs, and other animals to:
Let’s recap where we are. Do animals regulate their body budgets by interoception? I cannot speak for the entire animal kingdom here but for mammals—rats, monkeys, apes, dogs—I think we are on pretty safe ground answering yes. Do animals experience affect? Again, I think we can give a pretty confident yes, based on some biological and behavioral clues. Can animals learn concepts and can they categorize predictively with those concepts? Definitely. Can they learn action-based concepts? Unquestionably yes. Can they learn the meaning of words? Under some circumstances, some animals can learn words or other symbol systems, in the sense that the symbols become part of the statistical patterns that a brain can capture and store for later use.
But can animals use words to go beyond the statistical regularities in the world, to create goal-based similarities that unite actions or objects that look, sound, or feel different? Can they use words as invitations to form mental concepts? Do they realize that part of the information they need about the world resides in the minds of other creatures around them? Can they categorize actions and make them meaningful as mental events?
Probably not. At least not in the way that we humans do. Apes can construct categorizations that are more similar to our own than we might have imagined. But right now, there is no clear evidence that any non-human animals on the planet have the sorts of emotion concepts that humans do. We alone have all the ingredients necessary to create and transmit social reality, including emotion concepts. This holds true even for Man’s Best Friend.
If apes, dogs, and other animals don't have the capacity to experience human emotions, why are there so many news stories about emotions being discovered in animals, even in insects? It all somes down to a subtle mistake that's repeated over and over in science, and which is very difficult to detect and overcome.
Scientists who adhere to the classical view say that the rat has learned to be afraid of the tone, calling this phenomenon “fear learning.” …All over the world, for decades, scientists have been shocking rats, flies, and other animals to map how neurons in the amygdala allow them to learn to freeze. Having identified this freezing circuit, scientists then infer that the amygdala contains a fear circuit—the essence of fear—and the increased heart rate, blood pressure, and freezing is said to represent a consistent, biological fingerprint for fear. (I’ve never been sure why they decided it’s fear. Couldn’t the rat be learning surprise, or vigilance, or maybe just pain? If I were the rat, I’d be pretty pissed off about the shocks, so why isn’t it “anger learning”?)
Anyway, these scientists go on to say that their fear learning analysis extends from rats to humans, because the relevant fear circuitry in the amygdala has been passed to us through mammalian evolution à la the “triune brain.” These fear learning studies helped to establish the amygdala as the supposed brain location of fear.
In psychology and neuroscience, so-called fear learning has become an industry. Scientists use it to explain anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s employed to aid with drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry and to understand sleep disturbance. With over 100,000 hits on Google, “fear learning” is one of the most commonly used phrases in psychology and neuroscience. And yet, under the hood, fear learning is just a fancy name for another well-known phenomenon: classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning,
Scientists unknowingly apply their own emotion concepts, construct perceptions of fear, and attribute fear to the freezing rat. I call this general scientific mistake the mental inference fallacy. This fallacy has been demonstrated in many experiment in which children and adults assign agency and storyline lines to moving triangles and lines.
The fear learning phenomenon is the most dramatic example of the mental inference fallacy in the science of emotion. Its practitioners blur the important distinction among movement, behavior, and experience. Contracting a muscle is a movement. Freezing is a behavior because it involves multiple, coordinated muscle movements. The feeling of fear is an experience that may or may not occur together with behaviors like freezing. Circuitry that controls freezing is not circuitry for fear. This egregious scientific misunderstanding, along with the phrase “fear learning,” has sown confusion for decades and turned what’s effectively an experiment on classical conditioning into an industry of fear.
Some scientists still presume that all vertebrates share preserved, core emotion circuits to justify the claim that animals feel as humans do. One prominent neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, routinely invites his audiences to see evidence of such circuits in his photos of growling dogs and hissing cats, and in videos of baby birds “crying for their mothers.” It is doubtful, however, that these proposed emotion circuits exist in any animal brain. You do have survival circuits for behaviors like the famous “four F’s” (fighting, fleeing, feeding, and mating); they’re controlled by body-budgeting regions in your interoceptive network, and they cause bodily changes that you experience as affect, but they are not dedicated to emotion. For emotion, you also need emotion concepts for categorization.

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