What Are Animals Really Thinking? Author Explores Hidden World

In her book "Animal Wise," Virginia Morell gets inside our fellow creatures' heads.

What do animals think and feel? This question, which has long intrigued science writer and author Virginia Morell, is explored in her new book Animal Wise.

From ants that teach, to earthworms that make decisions, to rats that love to be tickled, Morell aims to reshape our understanding of animals and their emotions. For the book, she shadowed several innovative scientists investigating the animal psyche, focusing on well-known species such as dolphins and the domestic dog.

We caught up with Morell to ask her about her book and what she wants us to know about what's going on in an animal's head.

How did this book come about?

I've been an animal lover all of my life, and the first book I wrote was a biography of the Leakey family, Ancestral Passions. For that work I went to Gombe Stream National Park to interview Jane Goodall. She thought it was important to spend time watching the chimpanzees, and it was very evident from the first chimpanzee I met that there was a lot going on in their minds. So when I finished the book, I decided to look into the field of evolutionary biology overall.

One of the things evolutionary biologists began to become more and more interested in, in the late '80s and '90s, was evolution of mind—it's not something that appeared because we stepped on the planet. Darwin said evolution didn't just include our physical body, but our emotional side as well. (See pictures of amazingly smart animals.)

The point I try to make at the end of the book is we're on this new frontier—we're recognizing that there are minds in every animal around us on the planet, and how remarkable that is. I would sit and think about that: The little jumping spider in my office, the birds in my yard—everyone has a brain, their neurons are firing, they're making decisions. If nothing else they have places to go and things to do. They're not just stumbling through life as zombies.

Are people surprised by that? What has been your reaction from readers?

I get messages from people that my book changed their lives and opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. Some say, "I can't kill the ants on my kitchen counter anymore." It seems to have opened people's minds and hearts to recognizing that the other animals aren't just robots—they truly are living, sentient beings. What an amazing world we live in, to be surrounded by all these other minds.

What challenges did you discover in observing scientists probing animal minds?

One is to show an animal is planning ahead. You have to come up with really clever experiments. There is also this idea that animals are supposedly stuck in time, that they're only in the present and have no sense of the past and future. Trying to verify if that is the case is one of the challenges that remain.

Certainly showing animals are conscious is still a challenge: First we have to find neurons that create consciousness in people, then [we] can do comparative studies with animals. But right now we don't have a framework in which to study emotions—it's easier to find out if an animal can count.

People are figuring out origins of speech. It will be a huge achievement to show animals have building blocks toward speech and language. (Watch a video of intelligent animals.)

How has this book changed your life? Has it made you a vegetarian, for instance?

I do eat chicken and I eat fish, but not great quantities of each. I've wrestled a lot with this: Our society as a whole is trying to have better relationships with other animals, and we worry about the fact they're sentient.

At the same time we are carnivores and omnivores, and we're going to eat meat. [During book tours and talks], I decided I wasn't going to say, "I'm a vegetarian" just because people want that to be the case ... It [sounds] sanctimonious.

What can we do to make sure animals have good lives? My own concern is much more for the animals in the wild whose habitat we're gobbling up in all directions and making it very difficult for them to live good lives. As humans, can't we do better? We are the dominant force on the planet, and we have to be looking out for them.

Anything else about your book you want to say?

I think it's fun to read. I've been told people laugh out loud at certain things: I think the dolphin-sex chapter is quite illuminating for people.

It's not an intimidating read: The scientists are like my characters. It's storytelling—I tell stories about the scientists and the animals, and I present myself as an everyperson walking into this world and saying, "Wow, this is amazing."

My book tackles the question of what is it like to be a fish, an ant, a parrot, etc. And it also asks what is it like to be an animal behaviorist—to be the person attempting to answer these challenging questions. Who are these scientists? Who is the person who discovered that rats laugh? What made him think the were laughing? They've been used in scientific experiments for more than a hundred years; yet not until Jaak Panksepp watched them did we know that they laugh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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