Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Dog's Mind

"What do you suppose is going on in his mind?" Mr. Reynolds asked, smiling at Alf. Alf, his twelve year old lab cross, sat primly beside him, staring at me, not blinking, his eyes tracking my every move.
"We can only guess," I replied lamely, as I leafed through Alf's file trying to decipher the scribbles.
"He's totally focused on you. Paying close attention to everything you do. Watching to see if you reach for a needle or a treat!"

Focus, attention, watching. Fully conscious and aware. Mr. Reynolds was absolutely right.

For most of Western history we believed that animals were not conscious in the same way that humans were. We believed that they did not have a "mind". We believed that their behaviours were only the products of unthinking reflexes. In the 17th century Renee Descartes famously stated that an animal crying in pain did not actually feel it the way we did, no more than a machine felt the noisy grinding of gears. Denial of animal consciousness persisted deep into the 20th century. In fact, I am ashamed for my profession that up until the 1980s it was unusual for veterinary schools to teach much about pain control, in part because of lingering doubts regarding animal consciousness.

But here's the funny twist to the story: it is actually our own consciousness that we should be doubting.

Our species developed language that allowed us to organize complex societies, create astonishing technologies and, ultimately, conquer the world. However, this language ability lies like a heavy blanket on top of our consciousness, often smothering it. What we call "thinking" is often just a garbled torrent of words inside our head. Usually these words are just pointless rehashes of old conversations, rehearsals for future conversations, looping snatches of song lyrics, half remembered to-do lists etc.. Honestly, what was the last truly useful thought you had? And chances are it popped up unbidden in a rare quiet moment rather than out of the churning river of internal chatter.

Animals, on the other hand, do not have words. They do not plan conversations or construct lists of chores. They exist in a state of pure consciousness and pure awareness, with absolute focus and attention. Their minds are filled with what is right in front of them, right now. This is akin to what people who meditate attempt to achieve. Sure, memories and anticipations intrude for them too, probably in the form of smell pictures, but far more than us they are present in the real world in real time, moment by moment, while we unconsciously drift along and then wonder where all the time went. Or wonder whether those last few traffic lights really were green.

I gave Alf both a needle and a treat. And then I went back to trying to figure out the file while wondering whether my next appointment was set up and what that thing was that I forgot to say and then remembered and then forgot again.

Alf was looking at the door.