Unveiling Animal Joy

The study of emotions in animals has long fascinated biologists, shedding light on how various species adapt and thrive in their environments. While negative emotions such as fear and stress have been extensively researched due to their clear survival implications, the exploration of positive emotions in nonhuman animals remains relatively underdeveloped. This gap in research is particularly evident when it comes to understanding joy—a complex, positive emotion characterized by its intensity, brevity, and event-driven nature.

In the article “Understanding Joy in Animals,” Leah Kelly summarizes a groundbreaking study by Nelson, X.J., Taylor, A.H., et al., published on May 27, 2024. The study delves into innovative methods for detecting and measuring joy in animals, arguing that a deeper investigation into this emotion could revolutionize our understanding of animal cognition, evolution, and welfare. Unlike human studies that often rely on introspection and self-reporting, researchers must employ creative and indirect methods to gauge joy in animals. The authors propose that inducing joy through specific situations and observing resultant behaviors offers a promising approach.

The article outlines four key areas for studying joy in nonhuman animals: optimism, subjective wellbeing, behavioral indicators, and physiological indicators. Each of these areas provides unique insights and methodologies for capturing the elusive essence of joy. For instance, the cognitive bias test measures optimism by observing how animals respond to ambiguous stimuli, while physiological indicators like cortisol levels and brain activity offer tangible evidence of positive emotional states.

By exploring these dimensions, the study not only enhances our scientific understanding but also has practical implications for improving animal welfare. As we learn more about the joyful experiences of animals, we can better ensure their wellbeing in both natural and controlled environments. This article serves as a call to action for more comprehensive research into the positive emotional lives of animals, highlighting the profound connections that bind all sentient beings through the shared experience of joy.
**Introduction: Understanding⁣ Joy in Animals**

The study of emotions‍ in animals has long fascinated biologists, shedding light on how various species adapt and⁤ thrive in their environments. ‌While negative emotions such‍ as fear and stress have‍ been extensively researched​ due to their clear survival‍ implications, the exploration of positive emotions in nonhuman animals remains relatively underdeveloped. This gap in⁤ research is particularly evident when it comes to understanding joy—a complex, positive emotion characterized by its intensity, ​brevity, and event-driven nature.

In the ⁢article⁢ “Understanding Joy in⁣ Animals,”⁣ Leah ‍Kelly summarizes a groundbreaking study by Nelson, X.J., Taylor,⁣ A.H., et‌ al., published on May 27, 2024. The study​ delves ‍into⁣ innovative methods for detecting ‌and measuring​ joy in animals, arguing that a deeper investigation into this emotion ⁢could revolutionize our understanding of animal⁣ cognition, ⁣evolution, and welfare. Unlike ⁢human studies that often rely on introspection and self-reporting, ⁤researchers must employ creative and indirect ⁢methods to gauge⁣ joy in ‍animals. The authors propose that inducing joy‍ through specific situations and observing resultant behaviors offers a⁤ promising approach.

The article​ outlines⁤ four key areas for studying joy in nonhuman​ animals: optimism, subjective wellbeing,⁢ behavioral ⁢indicators, and physiological indicators. Each of these areas provides unique insights and methodologies for capturing⁢ the elusive essence of joy. For instance, the cognitive⁤ bias test measures ⁢optimism by observing how animals respond‌ to ambiguous stimuli, while physiological indicators like cortisol levels and brain activity offer tangible evidence of positive emotional states.

By exploring these dimensions, the ⁣study not only enhances our scientific understanding but also has practical implications for ⁤improving animal welfare. As we learn more about​ the ⁢joyful experiences⁤ of‍ animals, ​we can⁣ better ensure their ⁤wellbeing in both​ natural and controlled⁤ environments. This⁢ article serves as a⁤ call to action for more comprehensive research into the positive emotional⁣ lives of animals, highlighting⁤ the ⁣profound ⁤connections that bind all sentient beings through the shared experience of joy.

Summary By: Leah Kelly | Original Study By: Nelson, X.J., Taylor, A.H., et al. (2023) | Published: May 27, 2024

This study gives an overview of promising methods for studying positive emotions in nonhuman animals, and argues that far more research is needed.

Biologists have long recognized that many species of animals experience emotions, which have adapted over time to support survival, learning, and social behaviors. However, research into positive emotions in nonhuman animals is relatively scarce, in part because they are more difficult to detect and measure compared to negative emotions. The authors of this article explain that joy, a positive emotion characterized as “intense, brief, and event-driven,” may be an excellent subject of study in animals, due to its association with visible markers like vocalizations and movement. More research about joy could potentially provide us with a deeper understanding of cognitive processes and evolution, but also enable us to better monitor and facilitate animal wellbeing.

While research on joy in humans has relied heavily on introspection and self-reporting, this is typically not possible with other species, at least not in ways we can immediately understand. The authors suggest that the best way to measure the presence of joy in nonhumans is to create joy-inducing situations and collect evidence from the resulting behavioral responses. In reviewing the current literature, the authors describe four areas that may prove most fruitful in studying joy in nonhumans: 1) optimism, 2) subjective wellbeing, 3) behavioral indicators, and 4) physiological indicators.

  1. To measure optimism as an indicator of positive emotion in animals, researchers use the cognitive bias test. This involves training animals to recognize one stimulus as positive and another as negative, and then to present them with a third ambiguous stimulus that is exactly between the two others. The animals are then identified as more optimistic or more pessimistic based on how quickly they approach the ambiguous third thing. The cognitive bias test has also been seen to link positive emotion to positive bias in humans, providing a valid path forward for scientists to continue using it as a tool to better understand joy in animals.
  1. Joy can also be viewed as a sub-dimension of subjective wellbeing, which can be measured on a short-term level in animals by connecting it to physiological responses. For example, lower cortisol levels indicate lower stress and therefore higher wellbeing. However, this type of research can run the risk of anthropomorphizing certain behavior, such as play. While many researchers agree that play in animals indicates positive affect, other studies have suggested that play can also be associated with stress, which would indicate the opposite.
  1. Certain behaviors are likely correlated with strong positive emotions, particularly in mammals. These include vocalizations and facial expressions, many of which are similar to those exhibited in humans. Many species produce sounds during play that can be described as laughter, which serves an evolutionary purpose by being “emotionally contagious,” and is linked to dopamine activation in the brain. Meanwhile, facial expressions showing disgust or liking are studied in a variety of species, including birds, by looking at their physical responses to bitter or sweet flavors. While expressions can be often misinterpreted — requiring a control group to measure against each time — the authors of the review point to machine learning as a way of more accurately coding facial behaviors in different species.
  1. Physiological indicators in the brain can be a very useful way to study positive emotions like joy, because many species of animals share similar basic brain components and brain processes that date back to our common ancestors. Emotions occur in the subcortical regions of the brain, which means that a developed prefrontal cortex and high-level thinking, as seen in humans, are not required. Emotions in humans and nonhumans (vertebrates, at least) alike are found to be mediated by dopamine and opiate receptors, and affected by external rewards and hormones. For example, oxytocin may be associated with a positive state, while cortisol increases in stressful circumstances. Far more research into the effects of neurotransmitters on neurobiological processes is needed.

Current research suggests strong commonalities between human and nonhuman emotions. The authors of this article stress the need for a comparative approach to better understand the expression of joy across species. In doing so, we’ll gain deeper insight into our mutual origins and experiences, which could in turn promote better treatment of animals in so many ways.

Unveiling Animal Joy July 2024

Meet the Author: Leah Kelly

Leah is currently a graduate student at Northwestern University pursuing an M.A. in Public Policy and Administration. After receiving her B.A. from Pitzer College in 2021, she worked at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine for a year. She has been vegan since 2015 and hopes to use her policy skills to continue advocating for animals.

Citations:

Nelson, X.J., Taylor, A.H., Cartmill, E.A., Lyn, H., Robinson, L.M., Janik, V. & Allen, C. (2023). Joyful by nature: Approaches to investigate the evolution and function of joy in non-human animals. Biological Reviews, 98, 1548-1563. https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12965

Notice: This content was initially published on Faunalytics.org and may not necessarily reflect the views of the Humane Foundation.

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