Being Inside Animals' Minds to See If They Can Feel Emotions

Neuroscientists are looking to understand how animals generate desire or aggression, among other emotions.
Fabienne Lang

Wouldn't it be fantastic to know what goes on in animals' minds? 

Neuroscientists have been working on trying to find out this information and have been analyzing data closely in order to get to the bottom of the matter. Two neuroscientists from Harvard University studied zebrafish to try and do so. 

A paper on the matter was published in the journal Nature on Tuesday.

Observing fish the size of an eyelash

Jennifer Li and Drew Robson, neuroscientists from Harvard University, have observed tiny transparent zebrafish by using a new technological platform they built two years ago. This method enabled them to see every cell in the larvae's brains while they swam around feeding on microscopic prey.

In doing so, the team of two discovered a small number of neurons in the larva lit up for minutes at a time — much longer than the seconds they typically light up — when it was about to eat a morsel of food. This would mean that internal brain states exist in animals. 

So far, scientists haven't been able to look into animals' mood or desires, which in turn lead them to behave in certain ways. New technologies are slowly changing this, and scientists will hopefully be able to discover what they've been searching for: tracking electrical activity in the brain at an extremely high level, which in turn shows animals' behaviors during millisecond-long time spans. 

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Now, the question is what do these internal states mean in animals

Researching animal behavior and emotions won't only be beneficial for scientists or animals, but it may even shed light on human emotions and potential clinical uses. "Mental illness is essentially disruption of internal states," said Joshua Gordon in Nature, director of the US National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. "They need to be understood."


There's still a fair way to go before animal emotions are understood through observation, but the momentum within the scientific world is picking up with regards to this research.

"In this new field, even the basics are up for grabs," explained Li. "At this stage, we are still trying to understand what the questions are."

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