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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The beast and the beauty

By Mukul Sharma

Do animals have mystical moments, that fleeting ineffable sense of a cosmic connect? Despite the fact that this may sound laughable to some, who may perhaps not be up to speed with what scientists studying animal behaviour have been documenting for decades, a case can still be made for it. 

For instance, research suggests that spiritual experiences originate deep within primitive areas of the human brain which, incidentally , also happen to be areas shared by a lot of other animals with a similar brain structure. How can we absolutely rule out that the functions of those same areas are not shared by them too? 

A study in the journal Neurology has shown that out-of-body experiences in humans are likely caused by the brain's arousal system which regulates different states of consciousness. If we disrupt the region where vision, sense of motion, spatial orientation and awareness of body position come together, then out-ofbody experiences can be caused literally by the flip of a switch. 

Obviously, there’s no reason to believe it’s any different for a dog, cat or primate’s brain, considering it’s already been seen that when specific parts of the limbic system — which in humans give rise to feelings of altered states of consciousness — are removed from animal brains, drugs like LSD have no effect. 

Yet, in spite of the circumstantial evidence, it’s still true we’ll never know if animals actually undergo such experiences for the simple reason that they don’t have the necessary language skills to communicate it. But isn’t that the same situation humans face when they apparently experience a mystical moment? 

All they can tell us later is that there are no words to describe it. So if language can’t be used as a tool to communicate it, how do we know what kind of subjective experience they had? Or if they had any at all? 

Besides, what makes us so exalted that we should be the only ones around with which the cosmos connects? In their recent book Wild Justice, animal ethologist Marc Bekoff and philosopher Jessica Pierce document a suite of animal behaviour that can only be defined as being indicative of morality. 

These include cooperation — as in altruism, reciprocity and trust; empathy — as in compassion , grief and consolation; and justice — as in sharing, fair play and forgiveness. If an animal can be a moral agency, what stops it from being a spiritual being too?

Courtesy: The Economic Times

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