Do All Mammals Experience Emotions? A Scientist Makes the Case That They Do, and That We Humans Can Learn From Them

I was having dinner with several people I’ve known a long time. As we were conversing, two of them disagreed over something minor, but it escalated quickly. At first I was baffled by both the tenor and content the exchange. Then, suddenly, it hit me.

I blurted to one of them: “You’ve had Botox!”

This halted the argument but also confused everyone, so I explained. Botox injections reduce the plasticity of the face, making expressions harder to read. Nonverbal cues like expressions and gestures provide context and subtext for what we say. The argument I witnessed had less to do with differing views than with one of the two’s face affecting the way other people received and understood their words.  

This episode reminds me of a fascinating book. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves is an engaging, accessible book by Frans de Waal, professor of psychology at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Throughout his distinguished career, de Waal has challenged the old view that all animal behavior can be explained as instincts or responses to stimuli. He argues that all mammals — not just close human relatives like chimps but also dogs, even rats — experience most of the same emotions that we humans do.

“Mama,” a female chimpanzee, died in 2016, at age 59, in a Dutch zoo. The “last hug” refers to her final meeting with biologist Jan van Hooff, whom she’d known her whole life. De Waal, van Hoof’s first Ph.D. student, had given Mama her name many years before to reflect her role as unquestioned matriarch of the zoo’s chimp colony. 

De Waal’s work builds on that of the late Jaak Panksepp, who pioneered affective neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion in mammals (including humans). Panksepp’s work has also deeply influenced my thinking and our work at OhioGuidestone.

Central to de Waal’s case is distinguishing between emotions and feelings. “Emotions are observable and measurable, reflected in bodily changes and actions,” he explains. “Feelings, on the other hand, are private experiences.”

De Waal readily admits that we can’t know what an animal is feeling, but makes a compelling case that “all the emotions we are familiar with can be found one way or another in all mammals, and that the variation is only in the details, elaborations, applications and intensity.”

He cites Panksepp’s discovery — dismissed by most American psychologists at the time — that rats like to be tickled, and will emit squeaks outside the range of human hearing. Rats make the same sounds when playing with each other, and de Waal agrees with Panksepp that these sounds are laughter. We usually associate laughter with humor, but it’s more than that.

“Notice when people laugh in spontaneous chit-chat — no joke, no pun, no odd remark,” de Waal writes. “It’s just a laugh inserted in the flow of conversation, usually echoed by the partner. Humor is not central to laughter: social relationships are. … The laughter of a group of people broadcasts solidarity and togetherness, not unlike the howling of a pack of wolves.”

Chimps laugh frequently, de Waal writes, and even use laughter to defuse tense situations, just as humans do.

Animals clearly like to have fun. The Internet is awash in videos of animals playing — alone, with others of their kind, and even between species. De Waal asserts that “joy jumps” are so common as a play signal that they are almost universally recognized among mammals. 

I was especially intrigued by his account of the favorite game among the chimps Mama lived with: computer games:

The quickest way to get the chimpanzees to enter our Cognition Building at Yerkes, which they do on a voluntary basis, is to move past their outdoor enclosure pushing a service cart carrying a computer. The chimps burst out hooting and run to the doors of the building where we do the testing, lining up to get in. They’re eager to spend an hour of what they see as fun and games and what we see as cognitive testing.

Some of the chimps even got competitive, vocalizing their displeasure if a nearby companion earned more of the happy sounds that indicate correct answers on the tests. I found the echoes of human behavior in this passage a little unnerving. The capacity for screen addiction may be even more deeply embedded in our DNA than we thought. 

What does all of this mean for humans? De Waal believes it’s time to correct the longstanding myths about just how different we really are from our mammalian kin. 

“That emotions are rooted in the body explains why Western science has taken so long to appreciate them,” he writes. “In the West, we love the mind, while giving short shrift to the body. … Emotions help us navigate a complex world that we don’t fully comprehend. They are our body’s way of ensuring that we do what is best for us.” 

At OhioGuidestone, we help our clients learn to navigate their emotions; that means overruling them sometimes, but we never advocate dismissing them entirely. It’s emotions, not logic, that bring us together in the social bonds that guide and shape us. Children learn resilience and impulse control in loving, caring relationships, and throughout our lives, the joy we experience with others is the best antidote to stress and trauma. Animals seem to know this, though they can’t express it. We can express it, but too easily forget.

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