In advance of our special event with Jonathan Safran Foer on 18 January on eating animals we asked Mike Mendl, Head of the Animal Welfare and Behaviour research group at Bristol University’s School of Clinical Veterinary Science, to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I’m interested in the ‘emotional minds’ of non-human animals – whether they experience emotional states, and how we might measure such states. One idea, which really isn’t mine, is that our ‘emotional systems’ evolved to help us achieve two basic survival goals – the acquisition of resources for survival and reproduction, and the avoidance of harmful situations. If this is correct, then animals may be capable of experiencing at least two (probably more) quite different types of positive emotion when they succeed at either getting something they want, or at avoiding something they don’t want. Perhaps surprisingly, these emotions came up in quasi-philosophical discussions on a recent football phone-in(!) when the presenter asked a weary manager ‘Which is better – the elation of winning the league, or the relief of avoiding relegation?’ I’m, not sure that one or other is better, but they are different, and the idea guides our studies of animal emotions.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
Sticking with animal minds I’m intrigued by the idea, put out recently, that one cognitive ability that distinguishes us from other animals is the ability to travel mentally in time – to remember specific events in our past, and to think forward and imagine the future. Are other animals really ‘locked in the present’ as this would suggest? It’s difficult to imagine – some studies suggest that over 50% of adult conversation is about the past or the future – but some brain-damaged people do appear to experience life in this way. Exciting recent research is now trying to devise ways of investigating whether animals can mentally travel forwards and backwards in time. Results suggest that some species may have this ability, but whether they consciously re-experience their memories or picture the future remains unknown.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
I don’t know about the most important book, but a book that I have enjoyed and found informative is Bad Science by the Festival of Ideas contributor Ben Goldacre. It’s entertaining, amusing, worrying, horrifying in some places, but it gives a clear insight into how science is actually done, the limitations and uncertainties of scientific evidence, and the ways in which it can be misinterpreted, misreported or even misused. I think it’s a valuable introduction for non-scientists to an area which has increasing influence on our lives, and a valuable reminder to scientists of the pitfalls and responsibilities inherent in ‘doing science’.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
Liberal party politicians like Charles Masterman, if there are any in 100 years time, will be looking back and musing over the fall-out of the great 2010 ‘hung parliament’ UK election, and whether or not it changed British politics forever. The choices provided to the parties by the voting electorate could hardly be more complicated, or their outcomes more unpredictable. In another parallel with the study of animal minds, it will be interesting to know which plays a greater role in the final decisions – the cold logic of the head or the hot emotion of the heart!