The Yogin who attains Self-realization discovers that latent powers of perception have awakened within his or her illumined consciousness. He or she begins to receive subtle images and sounds that convey the subjective internal states of the beings around him – humans, animals, and possibly even aliens. In this article, we demonstrate that observations on animal intelligence made by Sri Aurobindo decades ago have been fulfilled by recent results in comparative psychology and cognitive ethology (the field of science dedicated to studying animal cognition).
Dnyaneshwar was a precocious 13th century Yogi of the Nath Path (i.e Brotherhood of the Supreme), who attained Self-realization in his early teenage years and subsequently dictated the Dnyaneshwari, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita based on his spiritual experiences. His commentary contains one of the most original descriptions of the awakening of the Kundalini. In particular, he expounds that the “self-realized sage becomes a Skywalker (Keshara). The body of the Yogi becomes as one formed of the wind; as a cloud from which limbs have sprouted out” after which — ” (the Yogi) beholds the things beyond the seas and stars; he hears the language of the Devas(Gods) and comprehends it, and perceives what is passing in the mind of the ant .”
That last phrase “Yogi… perceives what is passing in the mind of the ant” is of importance to the topic at hand. During his early years in Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo used to keep a journal of his spiritual progress which has now been published as the Record of Yoga. In this journal, we find some observations on animal cognition that were made based on his newborn powers of perception.
On Sept 7, 1913, Sri Aurobindo noted the decision making process that he observed in animals:
All the perceptions do not yet come at the right time, some revealing themselves after the thing perceived has passed out of the mind of the object. Nevertheless the movements of men & animals are now perfectly understood, their hesitations & rejected or modified ideas & impulses as well as those which eventuate in action. It is evident, now, out of what a complex mental tangle the single clear & decisive act proceeds. In the animals it is sometimes an obscure & sudden suggestion which contradicts all the previous thinking & tendency & often half consciously forces the action. But often also in them an impulse abandoned and forgotten by the mind remains in & dominates the subconscious pranic energy and dominates a subsequent action. The same is true but in a less degree of man. In the insects the mind counts for much less than this pranic energy .
Similarly, on March 24, 1914, he discusses the range of emotions passing through two squabbling cats:
Proofs of the idea-perception are being multiplied; eg, a quarrel between two cats on the opposite terrace, a black tom & a white pet cat; almost all the movements could be followed & predicted; 1st. the intention of the black to leap on the parapet of the stairs where the white had taken refuge, then, partly from discretion, partly in obedience to aishwarya, its slow departure, but this was not actually foreseen, the emotions of its retreat, sullen anger, pride, fear of attack (this was proved by the frequent look back, yet not too frequent, from pride), the half idea of returning & pursuing the quarrel, always abandoned, the intention to come on to our kitchen roof, the turning aside for the direct descent, (here there was a doubt whether the reading of the intention was correct, probably caused by a hesitation in the cat himself whether he should not deviate to another side)], the final descent before the doubt could be solved .
Sri Aurobindo seems to be indicating, based on his yogic powers, that animals have emotions and mental states. While this may seem obvious to laypersons in general and animal lovers in particular, it is certainly not the case with psychologists and philosophers who have engaged in vigorous, and some might say hair-splitting, debate on what qualifies as awareness in animals and how to design controlled experiments to measure it. We shall touch upon this topic in a later section.
What about language capability? How is this perception possible in yogis? The renowned expositor of Yoga, Patanjali, states in the Yoga Sutras:
“shabda artha pratyaya itaretara adhyasat samkara tat pravibhaga samyama sarva bhuta ruta jnana” (Yoga Sutras, 3.17).
The English translation of this verse is: “The name associated with an object, the object itself implied by that name, and the conceptual existence of the object, all three usually interpenetrate or commingle with one another. By samyama on the distinction between these three, the meaning of the sounds made by all beings becomes available.”
Samyama in elementary terms can mean tuning one’s illumined consciousness to a certain entity. The above verse indicates that by tuning one’s consciousness on the distinction between the object, its name, and its conceptual existence, one can comprehend the sounds made by all beings – in effect, decipher the language of animals and birds.
There are indications in the Record of Yoga that Sri Aurobindo used the method of samyama for telepathy, as the following passage shows:
The difficulty formerly experienced in thought-telepathy was that there was a full or almost full perception, whenever there was even slight sanyama, of the chitta-mould of the living object and of his sensation mind in its status & acquired form accompanied with a clear perception of the contents of the temperament & character, also of the waves of feeling & sensation that arose in the manas (sense mind) & chitta (proper mind) & to a less degree of the thought sensations that arose in the manas, but not of the buddhi(higher mind), except in its vague mould & acquired status, its outer shell only, not of either its general contents or of the particular ideas arising in it. These powers were gained long ago, early in the Pondicherry stay, &to some extent always existed in an inchoate form as they exist probably in all men .
Based on his spiritual experiences, Sri Aurobindo once rebutted the views of Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke (1837-1902) on animal sentience:
“…his statement that man has self-consciousness while the animal has none is not quite true. And his argument is: because animals, have no articulate speech and because they don’t know that they exist, therefore they are not self-conscious. He admits that animals have reasoning power. But it is not true that they have no language. They have some sort of intoned sounds which are like the language of the pigmies and also they have a power of wonderful telepathic communication of impulse … So, having no articulate language does not imply absence of self-consciousness. Of course, the animals have no intellectual ideas to convey. But they have self-consciousness .”
In another conversation, he elucidated on animal sentience:
They say that animals can’t think or reason. It is not altogether true. They have an intelligence which acts within narrow limits of the needs of their life. These faculties are latent in the animals and have not been developed, that’s all. Cats have a language of their own. They utter different kinds of mews for different purposes. For instance, when the mother cat mews in a particular tone and rhythm after leaving her kittens behind a box, the little ones understand that they are not to move from that place until she comes back and repeats that mew. It is through the tone and the rhythm through the tone and the rhythm that cats express themselves… We had, when we were staying in Rue suffrin, a bitch left by someone in the house had a room upstairs with glass window and a bath-room at one extremity. One day this bitch found herself locked out. She tried all sorts of devices to enter the room but could not as the main door and the windows were all closed. As all attempts failed, she sat down in front of the window and began to think; how to get in? The way she sat and the attitude of her sitting showed clearly that she was thinking. Then suddenly she got up as if saying: Ah, there is the bath-room door! Let me try it. She went in that direction. The door there was open and she got in. It is the Europeans who make a big difference between man and animals. The only difference is the animals can’t form a concept, can’t read or write or philosophize .
Diverging from Indic sources, we find confirmation of language capacity in animals in the works of Carlos Castaneda. During a phase of heightened consciousness, Castaneda discovered that animals have a language of their own. The following passage is narrated in the words of Don Juan, Castaneda’s teacher:
“Yesterday the world became as sorcerers tell you it is,” he went on. “In that world coyotes talk and so do deer, as I once told you, and so do rattlesnakes and trees and all other living beings. But what I want you to learn is seeing. Perhaps you know now that seeing happens only when one sneaks between the worlds, the world of ordinary people and the world of sorcerers. You are now smack in the middle point between the two. Yesterday you believed the coyote talked to you. Any sorcerer who doesn’t see would believe the same, but one who sees knows that to believe that is to be pinned down in the realm of sorcerers. By the same token, not to believe that coyotes talk is to be pinned down in the realm of ordinary men .
Sri Aurobindo’s observations on animal cognition can be boiled down into five main points. Animals have a wide range of emotions; a language capability of intoned sounds like pygmies; limited reasoning power or an “intelligence which acts within narrow limits of the needs of their life”; a “power of wonderful telepathic communication of impulse”; and most important of all, self-consciousness.
In this section, we shall undertake a survey of the evolving scientific views on animal cognition. This will enable us to put the occult observations seen above in proper perspective.
In ancient Greece, the Pythagoreans believed that animals experience the same range of emotions as humans. In late nineteenth century, Charles Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals argued that, as a natural by-product of evolution, there must be mental continuity between the emotional lives of humans and other animals. Darwin’s protege, George Romanes, collected anecdotes of animal intelligence which were published in a volume entitled Mental Evolution in Animals. Romanes work was discredited because it suffered from the “anthromorphic bias” – the tendency of assigning human qualities to inanimate objects or animals. His interpretations of animal behavior were overly generous; he intuited fellow feeling among ants and fetishism in dogs . Science requires objective and replicable experiments free from observer bias, but the reality is that internal states of animals are necessarily private phenomena. How can one ever know with certainty what is going in the mind of an animal? As a result, scientific experiments were confined to studying stimulus-response patterns in animals. In the early twentieth century, the Behavioral psychology of Skinner and Watson was in vogue. Animals came to be regarded as little more than instinctual automatons. Notwithstanding the pessimistic trend induced by behaviorism, some significant works on animal sentience were published during this time. In 1907, Margaret Floy Washburn of Vassar college (the first woman to get a PhD in psychology) wrote The animal mind: a text-book of comparative psychology which discussed the experiments she had conducted on the existence of the animal mind. In 1938, Ludwig Koch and evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Huxley published Animal Language, a book which sought to advance the notion that language capability exists in animals. The book contained two gramophone discs which documented the rich variety of vocalizations found within the animal kingdom.
The dim scientific views on animal cognition began to fade in the latter half of the twentieth century with the birth of cognitive psychology. The advances in neuroscience made it possible to conduct brain imaging studies on animals. Now it was possible to identify the physiological correlates of various mental states within animals and make more intelligent inferences and, in the process, even revisit earlier anecdotal evidence.
Donald Griffin, widely regarded as the father of cognitive ethology, identified three categories of evidence that stand out as the most promising sources of significant, though incomplete, evidence of conscious thinking by nonhuman animals.
- Versatile adaptation of behavior to novel challenges. The ability to reflect on one’s emotions, to intuit the states of others and predict their future behaviour can be taken as signs of a developed mind.
- Physiological evidence of brain functions that are correlated with conscious thinking. Brain imaging studies can shed light on internal states.
- Communicative behavior by which animals sometimes appear to convey their thoughts to others. Such behaviour can be regarded as proof of social awareness.
It seems possible through a convergence of inter-disciplinary information gathered from ethology, neurobiology, endocrinology, psychology and philosophy, to avoid the pitfalls of fanciful anecdotes and anthromorphic bias and evolve a more critical approach which provides a better understanding of animal cognition .
Now we shall review some of the scientific studies on animal cognition that have been conducted over the last few decades.
Animals have been shown to experience a wide range of emotions, besides those related to fight or flight . Emotional fever describes the measurable rise in body temperature attributable to a psychological rather than physical cause. Impending exams and exciting sports events induce emotional fever in humans. Turtles and lizards have also been found to exhibit emotional fever in response to human handling. Rats develop emotional fever when handled by an unknown person, but this response declines as the rat develops trust in the handler. Similarly, chimpanzees showed significant decreases in skin temperature after viewing videos of emotionally negative scenes: other chimps receiving injections, images of darts and needles alone, and another chimp in conflict with veterinarians .
Some emotions are fleeting and others can be termed long-term states. We might refer to the latter as moods and dispositions. Do animals have such ambient emotional states? Rats, monkeys and other mammals confined for long periods in cages develop neurotic behaviors. Termed “stereotypies”, these behaviors involve repetitive, functionless actions sometimes performed hours on end. Rodents will dig for hours at the corners of their cages, and birds might pluck all their feathers and render themselves bare; they may also perform repetitive nodding or twirling head motions. Another method used to demonstrate ambient emotional states has been to monitor the animal’s use of anxiety-relieving drugs. Rats housed in enriched environments self-administer less amphetamine (mood-altering drug) than rats housed in impoverished cages. These ambient emotional states indicate that animals aren’t just automatons but they have a rich variety of emotions .
What about linguistic skills? Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney showed that vervet monkeys emit different alarm calls in the presence of different predators (leopards, eagles, and snakes), and the monkeys that hear the calls respond appropriately – but that this ability develops over time, and also takes into account the experience of the individual emitting the call. These sounds are considered a proto-language by many ethologists . Australian researchers have discovered that chickens have at least 30 different calls, alerting one another to the appearance of unexpected food or prowling hawks, while prairie dogs have at least 100 “words” describing predators, including different terms for humans with and without guns .
Continuing on the language front, apes have been able to master sign language but they are unable to learn grammar and construct sentences. Washoe the chimp was able to learn 132 signs in five years, Koko the gorilla learned 250 signs over four years and Nim Chimpsky learned about 125 signs in three and a half years. In the light of such studies, one can conclude that apes have limited linguistic comprehension or production abilities .
Animals have been found to comprehend absolute and relative number concepts. Pigeons have been able to discriminate between food containers marked with more dots (six or seven) and fewer dots (one or two). They were rewarded if they choose the container marked with more dots. Raccoons can learn to pick out cubes containing exactly three objects from a set of cubes containing between one to five items. Rats can be taught to respond only after three bursts of random white noise, not two or four .
One piece of evidence for mental capacity comes via testing for learning by imitation. Japanese quail were found to imitate their comrade only after they observed that he is being rewarded. This is said to be a case of “true imitation” where the observing animal in his mind comprehends the participating animal’s motivations .
The ability to group similar items can be taken as evidence of mental capacity. Pigeons have been found capable of discriminating between photographs of cats, fish, flowers, oak leaves, other pigeons, car and chairs. In a 1995 study conducted by Shigeru Watanabe and his colleagues, pigeons were found capable of discriminating between paintings by Monet and Picasso. The birds were first trained on a limited set of paintings: when the shown painting was a Picasso, the pigeon was able to obtain food by repeated pecking; when it was a Monet, pecking had no effect. Going further, pigeons were able to categorize paintings by Cezanne and Renoir as belonging to the Monet school, and paintings by Braque and Matisse as belonging to the Picasso school .
Cognitive ethologists have sought to determine whether animals have a “theory of mind”. Theory of mind refers to the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. Can you see the world from another person’s perspective? Can you predict how the other might act in the future? Can you deceive another by inferring what he may be thinking? These concepts can be tested by devising controlled scientific experiments. Needless to say, one must be able to tease apart tests where animals succeeded by merely exhibiting associative learning from the tests where they exhibited true comprehension . Several distinct tests have been devised and conducted.
Chimpanzee society tends to be stratified into layers of dominating and supplicant chimps. In one experiment, a dominant and a subordinate chimpanzee competed for two pieces of food, one that both could see and one that only the subordinate could see (a barrier blocked it from the dominant’s view). The prediction was that the subordinate would pursue the food that the dominant could not see. The results supported the prediction, showing that the subordinate chimp did prefer to pursue the hidden food, which suggested an awareness of what others can and cannot see .
Another such test to discern the theory of mind is the false belief test which was conducted on chimpanzees. The actual test conducted is not easy to describe so I am going to describe a simpler variant . In this test, the test subject observes Sally take a marble and hide it in her basket. Sally then ‘leaves’ the room and goes for a walk. Whilst she is away, and therefore unbeknownst to her, Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it in her own box. Sally is then reintroduced and the test subject is asked the key question, the Belief Question: ‘Where will Sally look for her marble?’ To pass the test, the test subject must know the belief that Sally holds in her mind. Chimpanzees and children under the age for four fail such a test but older children and adults succeed. Those interested in the meticulous details of this test can read .
There are plenty of other scientific studies and recent books which illustrate the cognitive abilities of animals. I won’t go into that here. See the Wikipedia entries for Animal_communication, Animal_language and Animal_cognition
The previous section sets the ground for contextualizing and comparing Sri Aurobindo’s yogic insights with recent scientific evidence. As we saw earlier, Sri Aurobindo observations can be boiled down into five assertions:
- Animals have a wide range of emotions: This is aligned with recent scientific evidence. As seen above, animals exhibit emotional fever, ambient emotional states and other non-trivial emotions.
- Animals have a rudimentary language capability: This is aligned with the current scientific data, and has been documented across several species.
- Animals have an “intelligence which acts within narrow limits of the needs of their life”: This is also aligned with the current scientific evidence. Animals can’t function completely like humans but they do exhibit limited rational skills.
- Animals have a “power of wonderful telepathic communication of impulse”: This is not yet scientifically proven, or if it is, I do not know the exact experiment which proves it.
- Animals have self-consciousness: This issue may not be easily resolved because the definition of consciousness itself is a trenchant topic. In Western psychology, (by and large) consciousness is regarded as a by-product of brain activity, whereas in Indian psychology, consciousness is regarded as the primordial substance whose differentiations create the observable universe with its numerous occult worlds, along with the indwelling living souls who, by virtue of being a microcosm of the macrocosm, inherit a spark of consciousness and five sheaths.
The significance of Sri Aurobindo’s observations lies in the fact that they were made during the early twentieth century when animals were by and large dismissed as instinct-driven automatons. Yogic insights are normally rejected because they are the result of largely subjective experiences which are not easily replicable in a scientific study, but in this case they merit scrutiny because they anticipate the evidence which is now building up in favour of animal intelligence.
Charles Darwin argued in favour of animal cognition because animals had to have mental continuity with human beings as a consequence of biological evolution. The yogi, by contrast, intuits animal cognition as a natural by-product of spiritual evolution. The purpose of spiritual evolution is self-expression of the latent Divinity through growth of consciousness. It is the same Divine spark which matures over thousands of incarnations by taking birth first in plants, then animals and then human beings. When the individual soul reaches the stage where its consciousness has outgrown the animal form, it is reborn as a human being (…where it continues to engage in animalistic activities until some epiphany awakens it towards its latent spiritual potential).
- H.P. Blavatsky. The Voice of the Silence, London : The Theosophical Publishing Company, 1889, p 77
- Sri Aurobindo. Record of Yoga, p 290 Sept 7, 1913.
- Sri Aurobindo. Record of Yoga, p 403 March 24, 1914.
- Sri Aurobindo. Record of Yoga, p 402.
- A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, First Series, p 82.
- A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Third Series, 28 Jan 1939, p 195.
- Carlos Castaneda. Journey to Ixtlan: the lessons of Don Juan, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972, p 300.
- Marc Bekoff Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures. BioScience 50: 861-870.
- Clive D.L. Wynne. Animal cognition : the mental lives of animals, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York : Palgrave, 2001, p 7.
- Donald Griffin. Animal Minds : beyond cognition to consciousness, Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2001. pp 18-19.
- G.M. Burghardt Darwin’s legacy to comparative psychology and ethology, American Psychologist, 2009, 64, 102-110.
- Jonathan Balcombe. Second nature : the inner lives of animals, New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p 48
- ibid, pp 51-53
- Balcombe, op. cit., pp 88-90.
- Wynne op. cit., pp 165-171.
- ibid. pp. 101-105
- ibid. p 29.
- Pigeons As Art Critics? Pigeons, Like Humans, Use Color And Pattern Cues To Evaluate Paintings. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 12, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2009/06/090630075622.htm ; Pigeon_intelligence
- Clive D.L. Wynne. Do animals think? Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 2004, pp 163-194.
- Juliane Kaminski, Josep Call, Michael Tomasello. Chimpanzees know what others know, but not what they believe. Cognition, 109 (2), 224-234 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.08.010
- Dave Munger. Do chimps understand what Jon Stewart (or another chimp) believes? Cognitive Daily blog. Posted on: November 10, 2009
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