Dogs and Love, Part 3

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One of my favorite hobbies is trying to understand my dog. I want to grasp what might be going on in his mind and feelings and thus to get a sense of where his experience is alien to mine and where it is similar. Unlike, say, marathon running or stamp collecting, this is a hobby without clearly-defined parameters, actions, or metrics for success, but I find it compelling nonetheless. Humans and dogs are based on the same digital language and live in the same environment; the overlap between Them and Us is thus natural and large – but so is the divide, as watching a dog exercise its amazing sense of smell is enough to make clear.

I am not the only one fascinated by the inner life of dogs. A few years ago, news stories appeared about work by Patricia Simonet suggesting that dogs laugh; the panting you hear when your dog is playing (even before it has exercised much) is, Simonet believes, a form of laughter. "Laughter" seems off the mark to me as a description here; I would instead call the behavior "happy panting" because the dog is clearly in a happy state of relaxed but energetic play. The dog does not appear to be laughing at anything, however. True, laughter has a fairly broad definition, and of course what the dog is actually experiencing is likely not quite the same as any human experience. Still, when Zoomer and I play, his panting suggests excited happiness to me, not laughter.

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Recent articles about the human propensity for mental time travel remind me that dogs are in the present far more than we are. Human brains are constantly wandering away from the present as we relive old experiences and try out possible futures in the safety of our minds. The survival advantage of being able to roam through time this way is obvious. Less obvious is that parts of the brain involved in reliving the past and modeling the future are active almost all the time in humans; time travel is the default mode of the human brain according to Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Randy Buckner. The areas of the brain that light up during time travel go dark only when we are in the present, which, it turns out, is rarely. As Gilbert and Buckner put it, "It is only when the environment demands our attention – a dog barks, a child cries, a telephone rings – that our mental time machines switch themselves off and deposit us with a bump in the here and now. We stay just long enough to take a message and then we slip off again to the land of Elsewhen , our dark networks awash in light." Of course, Zen Buddhists have been talking about this for centuries, but it's always interesting to see science discover some of the underpinnings of human experience.

The "in the present" nature of dogs (and cats and other animals) is a big part of their charm and fascination; it is part of what makes animals seem spontaneous and genuine. Unlike adult humans, your dog is mostly here instead of wandering somewhere else in time. Because your dog doesn't have the mental horsepower – the computing power, really – to model the future and the past in the detail that humans do, he not only lives in the present more fully but notices and appreciates the present more than he otherwise would. This is one reason, presumably, that life seems so vivid for dogs; another reason is the dog's relative lack of emotional repression. Dogs (and other animals) are strongly connected to not only the present but to their feelings – chained to the present and to their feelings, one might say, even when they might rather escape. Humans have the mental tools in their vastly-larger brains to remove their own conscious selves from the present and to block or suppress their own feelings; given enough trauma early in life, this ability to block feeling becomes set in stone as the walls of repression harden into neurosis. At that point, the person is denied full experience of not only the original traumas but of feelings generally. Less early trauma thus allows for a more vivid and more loving later life; one must be able to feel in order to love.

It would be interesting to know if the level of repression someone exhibits is correlated with the amount of time travel of the type Gilbert and Buckner are measuring in the brain; does less trauma early in life lead to an adulthood with more time spent in the present? It would also be interesting to chart the ability for time travel as it develops in the human brain; the levels and quality of activity in the "dark networks" surely change from neonatal life on through infancy, childhood, and into adulthood.

Modern humans spend a disproportionate amount of time not only outside the present but also mired in our bizarrely-powerful upper-brain intellect. In this more abstract environment, deep feeling – the foundation of experience and the cornerstone of love – recedes into the shadows. Dogs and other animals are a reminder of the importance of feeling and of living in the present when we can. A loving early life improves our adult ability to love (and perhaps to live in the present); in turn, this healthier state gives us a sense of empathy for others including a natural respect for their rights and freedoms.

"The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves."

~ William Hazlitt (1778 - 1830)

Zen Master Zoomer as a Young Child (12 weeks old), in the Present and Open to Feeling

The Paradise Perspective will return on February 25.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 105

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains paradise-paradigm.net. This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.