Some people say that mind cannot be defined. But, you know, the classic philosophical definition of mind is that it is experience; that is the hard problem of consciousness. The formal philosophical name is that we have qualia, namely, we experience the world. If one wants to penetrate into the very heart of the nature of mind, namely experience, one has to try to imagine what might have been the very first qualia, first kinds of experiences that existed on the face of the earth. No one has an unambiguous answer to that, but my argument has been that the affects, namely the feelings, the qualia that actually have a valence can be empirically distinguished--they feel good, we approach them, or they feel bad and we try to avoid them. That’s pretty straightforward. Affective feelings were, perhaps, the very first kinds of experiences that existed on the face of the earth.
Others will say, “No, no; there were no experiences. All you see is a little primitive animal approaching and avoiding the world.” So, they are focusing on behavior, but my argument is that from those behaviors, eventually at some point in brain evolution, there came the first feelings. They come in positive forms, namely good feelings, and negative forms, aversive feelings. They came into brain evolution gradually, in various types. The three types I would say everyone has to try to talk about are the sensory feelings. We all agree that there are sensations of touch coming in. A certain form of touch turns out to be pain. And so forth . . .
Right now we’re having great discussions about whether other animals feel pain, or whether they just have pain reflexes. In the first issue of Animal Sentience (a commentary journal), that is being put out just now, this month, the first question was do fish feel pain? And, a target article by Brian Key, a physiologist from Australia, actually advocated the position that it is nonsense to go there. No! Fish don’t feel pain. They don’t have brain systems exactly the way we do, therefore, we should not even talk about going to the experiential level. Many scholars responded to that article. You know, most people said, probably some by the argument from empathy, others from evolutionary philosophical perspectives, that they experience something that was aversive. My argument was along those lines, but for any argument to be credible scientifically, it had to be scientifically testable, to make clear predictions.
Well, again you know, the bottom line is that experience is as subtle a scientific question as subatomic physics, looking at the basic particles of matter. There are certain basic functions of the mind. I think everyone will agree that the brain is the most important organ for generating mind, generating experience. Most everyone agrees with that; but how far down in evolution will we allow that insight to go remains very debatable right now. My argument is that there is no proof in science. Science has never had proof; science only has predictions, and the resulting weight of evidence. Every vision of who we are needs to have very concrete predictions that other people can go and test in a laboratory. So, my argument has been that, probably, the first form of mind on the face of the earth might have been feelings.
I think everyone agrees that humans have feelings. We cannot be certain they are identical, but we can now argue that they are in the same category because we have medicines, psychiatric medicines that work in the same way in all human beings; anti-anxiety agents, antidepressants. It turns out that these molecules seem to work in exactly the same way in animals. And, the animals, even though they cannot talk, conceptually with us, they do have behaviors that indicate that they approach the same things we approach; tasty food and water, heat and cold if they we are too hot. They show the same behaviors we do, and with some of these behaviors, feelings seem to be built in; they are called emotions. An animal shows an anger display, we can recognize that it is similar to human beings behaving angry. So, once we realize that certain instinctual behaviors are built in, we can begin to ask the question, does it feel like something for the animal?
It turns out that my research is premised on the discovery made by Walter Hess back in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, that when you electrically stimulate a cat’s brain and he was looking for where heart rate increases, blood pressure increases. He was trying to map the autonomic nervous system. He found that in certain deep parts of the brain, he could elevate heart rate, but wherever he got these sympathetic responses, namely the bodily arousals, he often got an anger, an attack, display. He chose to call that sham rage. Namely, there is a behavioral system in the brain for aggression, and that’s all there is. It’s like a puppet. It moves, but it does not experience.
So, Walter Hess decided that, even though he personally believed that the animal was angry (and he only confessed this in his retirement books)--he confessed, “I did not want my science to be marginalized by other people, by saying he had found anger in the cat brain.” All he found is the sympathetic nervous system that elevates bodily arousal. Well, my Ph.D. dissertation was to map this system in rats for the first time.
I also found aggression display where Hess had—“anger” type behavioral displays in rats also, in the same hypothalamic areas that Walter Hess had found them, but I went one step farther. If this is just a puppet response, then the animal should not care about it. Whereas, if it produces an internal feeling that is negative, the animal should turn it off; that’s what I found. I observed a very lawful relationship that wherever in the brain we can produce an anger behavior, the animals will turn that brain stimulation off. Anger does not necessarily feel good, even though it can have good results for you.
So, animals compete for food. They like competition. They might start to fight for the food, and the animal that fights the most vigorously is the one that gets the food. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the fighting is a positive feeling, but it’s something animal do to survive. So, that is the way we understood that there is a feeling, and in the case of aggressive displays, the feeling was negative.