Do animals get bored? Can animals think?
Descartes famously pointed out in his Evil Demon experiment “I think, therefore I am”. Through this, he proved that minimally, human beings are thinking beings. He said that one knows that other people are also thinking if language — that is a stimulus-free use of signs and symbols — can be assigned to them. The creative aspect of language use is the principal indication of the fact that a mind can be attributed to other beings (Chomsky, Cartesian Linguistics). An implicit premise of Descartes’ and Chomsky’s argument is that animals cannot think since they do not possess this creative aspect of language use that humans do. Is there anything other than language that can be used as a sufficient condition to attribute thinking to living beings?
Boredom is a universal human experience, that can be experienced both individually and collectively. Inactivity, loss of control, lack of interest and repetition are a few symptoms of boredom. Boredom is born out of thought. Boredom also leads to new thoughts. Boredom thrives on thinking. Is boredom a physical process or a mental process? Can only s/he who gets bored also think? If a sufficient link can be established between boredom and thinking, and if it can be shown that animals do in fact get bored, then can one say that animals possess the ability to think?
If I get bored, that means I can think.
I get bored.
— — — — — — — — — —
Therefore, I can think.
Lack of stimulation is the essence of boredom. Boredom can be borne out of either repetition of the same stimuli over a long period of time (diminishing marginal utility) or the lack of any stimuli altogether. The latter implies that we are missing something that we would like to happen but is not happening. This awareness reflects a complex and hierarchical thinking process. Boredom implies a first-person awareness — “there is a direct inner experience of self-hood” (Wemelsfelder, Animal Boredom). A sense of self is a necessary condition to feel the absence of stimuli, to miss something, to feel bored.
I am getting P, but I want Q.
Boredom resides in both — the mind and in the brain. Until about 20 years ago most scientists believed that the brain had a fixed structure which could not be altered or moulded after reaching adolescence. New studies in neuroscience show that stimulation (or lack of) can, in fact, remodel the brain. Both activity and inactivity induce changes in the brain.
If one is bored, that means s/he is not exposed to any new stimulation.
If there is inactivity and lack of stimulation, that means the brain cells change in harmful ways, like growing extra tentacles or branches to overstimulate the nervous system.
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Therefore, if one is bored, there are changes in the brain.
A lot like Chomsky’s argument for language — that it has a finite input of 26 letters but an infinite output of words/sentences — boredom too can manifest itself in many ways. Repetition and lack of stimulus are enough to kickstart boredom (input) but what lies on the other side of boredom is unpredictable (output) — it ranges from emotions of play and pleasure to pain and depression. The output set is an unknown domain. For example, a simple Google Search asking what ‘boredom leads to’ has suggestions ranging from creativity to crime.
It is important to note here, that we cannot assume to understand boredom as an animal. We only know the “human concept of boredom” (Ghita, Do Animals Get Bored?). We look at the world through a human lens and test even non-human objects/beings through that very lens. This can be seen in Alan Turing’s Imitation Test and it also applies here in the case of boredom. The reason for this is simple — we can only apply what we know. Just like it is not possible for us to know ‘’what it is like to be a bat’’ from a first-person perspective, similarly, we can never truly know what it is like to be bored as a fish (Nagel, What is it like to be a bat?). Boredom is an abstract concept and here we are only trying to see if our understanding of boredom also applies to animals.
If one gets bored, that means they can think.
Animals get bored.
— — — — — — — — –
Therefore, animals can think.
It was earlier believed by behaviourists that animals only perceive the surface level behaviour of others and indulge in “mindless behaviour rules” (Premack and Woodruff, Does the Chimpanzee have a theory of the mind?). Animals were only viewed as “stimulus-response machines” or equated with robots (De Waal, Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?). However, new research has shown that animals do indulge in stimulus-free play and they are not just machines with fixed inputs and outputs. Dinets, in a study for Animal Behaviour and Cognition, pointed towards stimulus-free play in crocodiles. He observed that crocodiles play with water and give each other piggy-back rides just for fun. This means that animals are indulging in play for playing’s sake, and not for any other purpose in absolutely normal conditions when they are free of stress. (Burghardt, University of Tennessee) Other examples include birds engaging in feather picking or dogs like Border Collies wandering around chasing cows or rats with no apparent external stimuli.
If animals did not get bored, then they would not indulge in stimulus-free play.
Animals do indulge in stimulus-free play.
— — — — — — — —
Therefore, animals do get bored.
One can argue that play is not all that stimulus-free. Animals might indulge in play at an early age only because it helps them build muscles and prepares them for adulthood. However, if this were true, then such activities would not be found in adult animals. Adult animals too have been observed taking part in hunting for fun and having sex only for pleasure and not to procreate. Primatologists Manson, Perry and Parish found that some female animals had plenty of sex even when they had reached a stage of menopause (Goldman, Do Animals Have Sex For Pleasure?). Similar encounters have been seen in female lions, cougars and leopards as well. Birds are also good examples of displaying stimulus-free actions. Some bird species pluck out their own feathers when they are under-stimulated. This means that animals do get bored, which in turn implies that they can think.
As mentioned earlier, boredom can be the primary cause of multiple secondary emotions and actions. Boredom can be the seed for both — low energy and high energy states. Boredom can be a positive as well as a negative catalyst. When human beings are faced with bouts of inactivity, we tend to engage in pointless but mind-stimulating activities. We may go for a walk, call an old friend, or scroll through our social media pages. This human behaviour is similar to how animals combat inactivity. Bored animals invent games or explore parts of their habitats. If there were not bored, they would not have done so. Animals kept in confinement and solitary habitats feel bored, lonely and develop mental illnesses. Boredom leads to many subsequent feeling/actions. Boredom can lead us to creativity, but also to suicide and mental illnesses. Chronic boredom and depression are different states of being but are highly correlated. (Weir, Never a Dull Moment) We tend to think of these emotions and acts as uniquely human characteristics, but manifestations of boredom are uncannily similar in both animals and humans.
If animals can be creative, get depressed and get mental illnesses, that means they can get bored.
Animals can be creative, get depressed and get mental illnesses.
— — — — — — — —
Therefore, animals can get bored.
One may argue that these are sweeping generalisations and are not experienced all throughout the animal kingdom. To them we say — that is true. We may not be able to assign the same experience of boredom to the smallest of ants and wasps, but higher functioning animals experience boredom. Cats hunt for fun and dogs take naps when prompted by a lack of mental stimulation. Fish too are often kept in pairs and actively engage with other fish around them (Wedderburn, Do Single Goldfish Get Lonely?). A solitary fish, much like a solitary human, begins to feel bored and therefore lethargic.
Does this then mean that boredom is a feeling proportional to intelligence? Can we then say that boredom is not only indicative of thought, but also of intelligence? Boredom, despite being a very underrated emotion/feeling may, in fact, be the underlying seed of more complex emotions/feelings.
I wrote this along with my good friend, Mahima Jaju, during the Young India Fellowship 2018–19.
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