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yawning dogs

Within the last month or so i heard  a story on NPR about dogs. It covered a study proving what i had already observed that yawning, which is known to be contagious, is so between dogs and our own naked primates. It also pointed out that yawning is not contagious with folks with autism, theorized to be a lack of empathy. Therefore dogs have empathy. I already knew all of the facts of the story but had not put those things together, though i am not surprised. Dogs are very emotion based. We know from other studies that dogs are more able to identify human emotions than even our close cousins the chimpanzee. To the extent that dogs have consciousness, not being able to pass the Mirror Test they presumably lack self-consciousness, i believe it is built emergently out of emotional processes unlike our forebrain centered consciousness that is presumably built out of administrative functions. Consciousness is an information process and is not to be confused with the biological processes that support it. “When the finger points to the stars the dog looks at the finger”. Self consciousness is more heavily clustered in mammals with fore brains, us, the great apes and elephants(?). But dolphins, and presumably whales though yet to be tested, pass the mirror test and demonstrate other traits of personhood (tool use for ex.- wild-dolphins put sponges on the tips of their noses to root for food in corral). A self-consciouss built out of the mammalian brain is possible. And what of bird self-consiousness? some can pass the mirror test. Consciousness built out of reptilian  survival drive.  Our consciousnesses,  information processes, than probably carry  theses subustructures of emotion and drive information systems that have the potential to  achieve self consciousness. I welcome any correction on my musings on neruo-science, socio-biology, and philosophy.

Categories: dogs, philosophy, primates
  1. foggytown
    August 31, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    Good to see you posting again.

    While I am not saying you are wrong, I am unsure if your basic premise is correct. Contagious yawning amongst dogs plus the fact that it is not contagious for autistic folks plus autistic folks lack empathy does not necessarily equal empathy for dogs. There could be (probably is) more to it than that.

    Once again, not saying you are wrong, just stating that the facts do not necessarily equal the conclusion. I certainly buy into a certain level of empathy amongst dogs, but dogs are creations of mankind. Sure we made them out of the building blocks of wolves, but they are far removed from those ancestors–we spent thousands of years picking those that fit into our pack, discarding those that did not. When I speak and my dog cocks her head, I don’t think she is trying to understand (like we would expect from a human making a similar gesture)–it is simply that a thousand generations of not-so-natural selection has given us an animal created in our own image.

    I know you have read Dennet, and I buy into his theory that consciousness is made up of a bunch of smaller routines If this is in fact the case–as you seem to grant in your post–then animals may have any number of these sub-routines, they may even have the basis of all of them. Gray Parrots, Bottlenosed Dolphins, Mountain Gorillas…it is fact that intelligence (as we measure it) has evolved parallel in diverse species.

    With every new discovery, we learn anew that we we are but an extension of what occurs in the animal world–it could not possibly be any other way (unless Genesis is the literal truth–and I am not prepared to buy into that). The basis for everything that makes us human has its roots in the animal world, we are not unique in any of our parts–it is the whole that has so far proven to be unique. Creative research will probably continue to eat away at and whittle down the things that make us unique, exposing us at our core as the animals that we are.

    There is a great article in the current issue of Scientific American Mind on this subject. It does not specifically address the ideas that you’ve raised, but it does shed more light on the subject.

    Enjoyed your post
    –john

  2. Mike
    September 4, 2008 at 1:17 am

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment, i have been pondering it for 2 days. It is of course well reasoned and informed and absolutely correct as i understand things. I’ll try to catch the Mind article you were talking about. But as an entire gestalt i think your comment is reductionist. I recognize the dog-autism-contagious yawning connection is thin but its worth exploring. We know what empathy looks like in the lab. If you shock someone the pain centers of the brain have a burst of activity. If you watch someone being shocked the pain centers light up in the same manner. I predict that study will be done and it will be conclusive dogs have empathy. Dogs will also wink, cats as well. Not autistic kids though. Winking is as empathetic as yawning, perhaps more so. A way of communication for emotional sharing. People do anthropomorphise dogs. I am not doing that but just looking at our commonality as a generalizable thing. When our little chow-hound Myrtle hears Max the next door pit bull make his “distress bark” Myrtle runs out there, she whines sympathetically, she offers comfort, she appears distressed. Dad independentlly observed and mentioned this. Max made what i call his distress bark, a bark that seems to say “hey i’m tired of being alone in the backyard and i’ve been barking for hours and no one’s coming and i’m starting to despair”. It s kind of heartwrenching to me and to Myrtle as well. Dad just recognizes it as that special bark that summons Myrtle. He thinks Max is calling her but it is obvious Max is oblivious to Myrtle totally focused on the house who he is really trying to reach, on an emotional-actional level. I don’t think i’m being anthropomorphic here, just observing how us critters act. I see in humans what i call chimp politics, simple dominance and submission routines. Its the way critters are.

    Going on to subroutines being parallel i not only agree but want to take it a little further. I would argue that certain patterns or forms come up again and again in parallel because of their inherent utility, necessity drives existence.

    When we look at the nature of consciousness it comes into sensory processing, memory, imagination, drives, administrative functions. Ultimately it leads to self awareness and to speculate what even other humans are doing seems dangerous let alone other critters. I can really only know myself and in that only partially. Have you known someone who knows things about you you don’t know? I think the more we know about the nature of our own consciousness the better we can use that information to enhance functioning and increase our understanding of others and the universe.

    John, thanks again for your comment, i enjoyed it, and i will try to post more.

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