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Pets & Anthropomorphism

Still on the animal-consciousness thing today. I was thinking about the way we treat, or don’t treat, animals as deserving of rights/responsibilities, and how this ties in with our anthropomorphic tendencies. Anthropomorphism, being the “attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behaviour to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena”, is often seen as a Bad Thing, inasmuch as it reveals either self-centredness or a patronising attitude. But the tendency that gives rise to anthropomorphism may also spring from the tendency towards empathy: it all depends on how you look at it. I don’t think its such a bad thing, if it encourages empathy, understanding or kindness.

Maybe it’s wrong to anthropomorphise animals; but this is what most people do when they have pets, and if it helps us to empathise with animals, is it such a bad thing? Most people acknowledge that animals have consciousness, even whilst disagreeing over which animals, and what extent of consciousness. Many have pointed out that we may not be able to understand, in human terms, what that consciousness is. Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion could speak we would not be able to understand it. It seems the danger of a solely anthropomorphic viewpoint is not only that we might lose sight of the probability that there are worlds we cannot understand, but that we end up only using animals as a comparison, as a way to understand ourselves. Like the MIT experiments on rats’ dream patterns, most experimentation on animals is done with the express purpose to aid our understanding of ourselves. Surely, though, to try and understand animals is a good aim in itself, whether there are ramifications for the study of humans or not; it may lead to knowledge and – who knows? – more kindness. Historically, a deeper understanding of animals has been necessary to lessen their suffering at the hands of humans; I’m thinking here of the extinction of entire species through Man’s ignorance, like the dodo, or the Baiji Yangtze Dolphin. However this understanding can only be communicated (however partially) via a translation into the human terms, human language, which is why to my mind anthropomorphism is inevitable. I think so long as we remember that we are talking about equivalents, not direct correlations, it is the best we can do.

I’ve also been thinking about the deep attachments between pets and pet owners. Was talking to S, who has always had pets since he was little (I was never allowed) ranging from stick insects, to giant millipedes, to cats, to a parakeet called Higgins. In The Best American Essays 2006 there is an essay called ‘Death of a Fish’ by Adam Gopnik; he discusses the view (expressed by developmental psychologists) that having a pet fish causes children to develop intuitive theories of biology. He also goes further and says it informs a child’s sense of consciousness, or rather it is a symptom of a child’s conception of pan-consciousness:

“They [children] believe in conciousness more than the rest of us; their default conviction is that everything might be able to think, feel and talk…We begin as small children imagining that everything could have consciousness – fish, dolls, toy soldiers, even parents – and spend the rest of our lives paring the list down, until we are left alone in bed, the only mind left.”

Gopnik sees this in his five-year old daughter’s grief for the death of a (to his mind) mindless, zomboid betta fish.

I don’t think it’s just children who feel this way. Nor does it signify, to my mind, a lesser regard for humans (kindness, empathy, love not being a zero-sum game). There are people who would scoff at other’s grief over the death of a pet; there are arguments that pet owners are exercising a terrible luxury to even spend money on vet bills when there are starving humans in the world. It seems to me though that there is something wrong with this argument. I don’t have a biased axe to grind or anything; I don’t have a pet, though I don’t rule out having one. Maybe, centuries from now, the idea of keeping animals in cages at all for our pleasure will seem barbaric and cruel (limiting rats to dreams of cages rather than not interfering in the ‘epic dreams of subway rats’). The arguments that might convince me are all weighted on the side of the animal’s perspective. Yet arguments against pet-owning are often focused on the owners. The argument that loving and caring for a pet is taking up the time that one might spend on loving and caring for humans is surely a false one. I think people can be improved by having pets in various ways. The capacity for feeling, if a person can love without being afraid, seems to increase the more you exercise it. I think there are lots of studies to show that it’s relaxing and so on to own a pet; good for stress etc. Gopnik’s essay also brings up the idea that perhaps it is also an aid to developing empathy for other beings; the crucial ingredient needed for us to be galvanised to action, to help alleviate the sufferings of others, of whatever species.

In the same book is an essay called ‘George’, about a dying dog; it’s a sad story by a man called Sam Pickering who talks about the emotions he experiences after having to have George put to sleep. He says:

“The nineteenth-century English painter Edwin Landseer got relations between dogs and people backward. In “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” Landseer painted a sheepdog grieving for his dead master…The truth is that people grieve for dogs, not dogs for people. Landseer should have painted an ancient shepherd standing at the edge of a field, bent over his crook, a single tear sliding down his left cheek, at his feet a nondescript mound, the dirt brown and fresh, a handful of crow feathers scattered yellow over the clods.”

I remember the one semi-pet I ever had; a cat, Thomas, who belonged to a sprawling family on the estate where I lived once. He was, I think, a little neglected in that family (who seemed to have Shameless-style dramas at least once a week) and decided to practically move in with us – gradually at first, then extending his stays to overnighters, days and nights at a time. Of course one never really owns a cat, it is indeed the cat that owns you, or rather plays you for food etc. Thomas, no doubt, had his providers all over the neighbourhood; he was an old-style tomcat with a playa’s sensibility. Although I in no way felt that I owned Thomas, I remember the fierce fury I felt when one day he came in with petrol on his back fur; where had this petrol come from? To be more specific, who had done this to him and why? It was possible he had accidentally found himself under the wrong car (he was fond of hiding under parked vehicles) and had himself an unwanted bath; possible too that he had narrowly escaped a kitty-burning from some psycho. I remember feeling powerless but imagining that, if I ever saw any person, man, woman or child tormenting Thomas I would rush over to them with abandoned ferocity and commit an act of violence without being able to stop myself. Curious, this is the same emotion I can imagine feeling if my family were physically threatened, except, if possible, even more so: the idea of the animal as so defenceless and innocent was breaking my heart. Thomas wasn’t defenseless and innocent in his own world – he was a predator; the innocence I mean here is the idea that he would not know anything of the reason for his pain. The cruelty of such torture is often predicated on the sadistic knowledge that the person or animal does not understand; bullying is the same impulse. S pointed out this morning in our discussion about the effect owning a pet fish might have on a child that one famous cliche about psychopaths/serial killers that is often luridly described is the adolescent or childhood cruelty to animals, which is usually taken to highlight a lack of ability to empathise.

I don’t exactly know how, but I have a suspicion these things are connected.

Rat dreams – how come nobody told me?

I mean, what’s with all the secrecy over this??? Yes, my rat-owning friends…this means YOU. How come it never came up in general conversation over the years that rats have dreams?

This morning I awoke with the question, what do dogs dream about? How come they don’t get confused when they wake up? Do they recognise that they dream?…and other related questions regarding animal consciousness and so on. It prompted me to go online in search of the answers to these questions and to my astonishment, I discovered that researchers at MIT have been doing studies into rat dreams that seem to prove that not only do rats remember but they also learn from dreams…and it’s likely they dream in pictures…reports on the latest research is here and the original study here.

The researchers are apparently trying to find out about human memory/sleep/dreams and how these things correlate neurologically, and so their analysis has tended to highlight the implications for the human brain. But in lots of ways I think it’s just as interesting if not more interesting to consider the implications for our understanding of rats and other animals. It seems that half the rat-dreams in the first (2001) study were dreams about re-running the mazes they had tested that day. What I would like to know is: what were the other half of the rat dreams about?

I couldn’t work out whether half the dreams meant half the rats dreamt about the maze while the other half didn’t or whether it meant that all the rats dreamt about the maze half the time. Without evidence, I prefer to think the former, just because its more fun to speculate about.

In a NY Times story (which goes into some more detail about the experiments) one of the MIT researchers from an earlier study 10 years ago says:

“It’s not necessarily that rodents have simpler dreams, but we limit them by restricting the experiences they have. It might be that a wild subway rat’s dreams are as exciting as our epic adventures in sleep.”

So, what sort of memory does a rat have? It can remember, in dreams, the maze …are the other dream-memories of the cage, or dinnertime (i.e. out of the cage) or rat conversations or rat sex it might have had, or might they be of long-time rat memories i.e. when it was a baby rat perhaps, its siblings, the struggle to survive and grow? I don’t get very far with this unless I anthropomorpsise in some way by imagining myself as a rat…As a human, I might dream about my new job by dreaming about the new workplace I had walked around that day, noticing the unusual painting on one wall, the browning thirsty plant on the corner by the lift, the echoing corridor on the way to the smoking room and the curious way the light slants in it, the dragon-faced receptionist etc. In a way, I can see how these sense and thought impressions are adding to my learning the actual, physical way around the place – the layout.

Obviously, the social layout is just as important in a new job, if not more so – I might therefore dream more symbolically about the place. Maybe the dragon-faced receptionist appears in my dream, except he appears as a scary-looking calendar made of fire. Only I know it is the receptionist, because I understand that a calendar represents time-keeping, the fire is a reference to dragons, and it’s scary-looking because I’m worried about my crap timekeeping affecting how I get on in the job (the receptionist being the person who has to keep an eye on latecomers).

If rats dream, then maybe they can dream symbolically. Maybe the ‘other’ rats were dreaming in this way.

So, what if the rats who show the pattern of the maze in their neuron dream sequence – those rats that subsequently the researchers found to be more successful in navigating the maze, and were thus classified as the cleverer, more successful rats – what if these were really the LESS evolved rats? Somehow the other rats, some of whom had figured the maze and its function without dreaming – maybe they’d already spoken to ex-lab rats* or heard the semi-mythical tales passed down orally from rat to rat, in their mother’s rat milk as it were – these were the rats who remembered these tales when they themselves were confronted with the maze (OK, they might have been lab-bred also, but are you telling me those rats were isolated from each other their whole lives, or that if they were, then the isolation cages were in rooms that were 100% secure from rodent-type invaders?) Imagine, then, that these are the cleverer rats, who dream symbolically about their life as a lab rat, who have maybe figured out that they might not need or want to be ‘successful’ in the maze. Maybe these rats, understanding that their lives are in some sense futile, try and fuck up the tests because they realise they truly are ‘working for the man’ – any rat data from these tests is incidental to the main topic, Man and Man’s brain, or worse, the data that shows stuff about rats, in a world that is largely unfriendly to them, will be actually used to exterminate the ‘vermin’ problem more effectively: understanding all this, rats say “Fuck YOU!”

Maybe they even get apathetic, thinking of suicide and a quicker death…yeah you can laugh at the idea of rats thinking philosophically or metaphysically but I say this: maybe SOME can. In evolution terms, these might not be the rats that survive to dominate the species, for the very crushing reasons I have just outlined, for the very awareness that one is often seen as nothing more than parasitic vermin… maybe that might persuade a rat to hurry along to the next life…

Yes this is all very far fetched. But then SO WERE FRIGGING RAT DREAMS as far as I was concerned yesterday.

*What do you mean there’s no such thing as an ex-lab rat?

Some thoughts on being back in the UK

Being back home was comforting and strange. A blur of travelling, pausing, catching up with friends. Social occasions planned and co-ordinated, not much time for spontaneity. Because this trip had been so organised in advance, each meeting or occasion speculated upon & discussed, I felt somehow as though I was observing my own life from a distance – events looming towards me like islands seen from a ship’s deck, a few tranquil moments spent apprehending the fine detail of each shoreline as I pass, the ship’s course one-way and inexorable. It was good to speak with people again, sit with them and hear what they had to tell me. No-one was awkward or changed, everyone themselves – even more so, perhaps – our meetings like special occasions, treats.

Of course, changes have been happening in the lives of my friends, but these seemed subterranean, apprehended yet somehow not present to me in the familiar faces, speech patterns, demeanours. One or two of my friends expressed surprise at my remembering events – days, nights – a few weeks before I left England, so clearly. (I usually have a terrible memory so it made a change.) To me, these events felt as though they had happened about a month ago – in my ‘English time’ they had. For me, it feels like England & English ‘time’ has been on pause for a year – of course to my friends, life had carried on, the familiar days, weeks and months intervening to make those weeks prior to my leaving now seem distant to them. I wonder if this means it felt to them that I have been away longer, an age, wheareas I felt it had hardly been any time at all.


I’ve been away for a while, so it’s time for a bit of backdated blogging. My itinery was Osaka-Birmingham-Leicester-Dublin-London-Bangkok-Koh Samui-Koh Phang Nan- Bangkok-Ayatthaya-Kanchanaburi, so I’ll be writing a bit about all these places. Also, since I got back to Japan, I’ve got two new jobs so I’ve been as busy as a busy thing…but more on that later.