I’ve always found the problems raised by anthropomorphism interesting. When a dog looks at us with a seemingly quizzical expression, are we actually reading the dog’s true state of mind or are we “projecting” our own understanding of human expressions onto the dog? My own unscientific guess is that it’s probably a bit of both. We tend to think of dogs, especially, as such a part of our families that we’re shocked on the occasions they behave like the wolf-cousins they are and snap at strangers. (As Chris Rock said about the tiger that attacked Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy, “That tiger didn’t go crazy! That tiger went tiger!”)
Nevertheless, the fact that we share, basically, a similar physiological structure with other chordates (four limbs, a dorsal nerve chord, bilateral symmetry, etc.) has always suggested to me that we have a pretty good chance of “reading” animals emotions accurately in many situations. Their brains, though not identical to ours, must work similarly to ours at least some of the time, because their bodies do.
Fortunately for me, there are people who have actually begun to study how animals’ brains work in a more rigorous fashion than me musing on whether my friend’s dog is smiling at me. National Geographic has an article online about some of these scientists’ work. It’s accompanied by a set of animal portraits that bring up the anthropomorphism question beautifully. Can we really read the expressions of these animals, or are we deceiving ourselves?
The portrait of “JB,” a Giant Pacific Octopus, is especially strange and beautiful, and perhaps the most prone to my anthropomorphizing instinct, as it’s so different from us it seems a much greater leap to imagine that we can know what it’s feeling. But maybe it’s not so different after all. It turns out, according to this article on ScientificBlogging, that octopi are among the most intelligent of the invertebrates, but their relatively large brains are structured more simply and have fewer nerve cells than ours, so they are perfect for studying how brains, even our brains, memorize and learn things.