Do Fish Feel Emotion?

Emotional Fish

We’ve known for decades that mammals in the animal kingdom lead complex and varied emotional lives.

Whether or not hamsters, monkeys, and elephants experience human like emotions is a largely redundant question today.

However, there’s still a great deal of mystery surrounding the inner lives of fish and their ability (or inability) to be motivated by moods, impulses, and personal quirks.

This article discusses some interesting discoveries from scientists investigating fish cognition and emotion.

In 2014, an Australian professor released details of a study that claims to show evidence of memory making, group learning, and cultural traditions in many fish species.

Culum Brown’s study compared fish behaviors, particularly in group scenarios, with those of primates and discovered surprisingly few differences.

Though fish don’t learn through imitation as primates do, they can teach other things, pass on their skills, develop unique family habits, and thrive in complex social communities.

Brown emphatically rejects the premise that fish don’t feel and suggests we’d treat them much differently if we could recognize their emotional states.

The Search for Emotion Under the Sea

In 2017, a team of Portuguese biologists took Brown’s research on fish emotion further and studied the behaviors of sea bream in various conditions.

The biologists taught ‘tricks’ to several groups of bream, all in the exact same way but in differing environments.

Some fish were trained in favorable conditions, while others were introduced to stressors while they attempted to learn.

The biologists measured the levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – secreted and used sophisticated equipment to determine which areas of the fishes’ brains were active in different conditions and scenarios.

They also monitored the sea breams’ interactions and social behaviors to better assess their responses and determine the impact of safe, calm conditions compared with more stressful or uncertain ones.

According to the biologists, the results of their study support the existence of emotion like responses in fish that are closely related to and uniquely influenced by each individual’s perceptions of external stimuli.

Fishing for Signs of a Complex Underwater Life

The difficulty of studying emotions in animals is, of course, strongly associated with an inability to verbalize.

Human emotions aren’t always easy to identify, but we don’t have to rely on guesswork. We can describe our own feelings.

While fishes’ emotional states aren’t demonstrated with verbal or visual cues like ours, by monitoring their physiologic, genetic, neurologic, and behavioral responses.

Marine biologists have realized that certain ‘moods’ appear in relation to certain stimuli. There’s a predictability to these responses that mirrors our own and those of other complex beings.

Do fish experience human like emotions?

Science seems to think so and, what’s more, it is creating some of the clearest maps of fish cognition, and intelligence to date in a bid to understand the emotional lives of our underwater ancestors. In a related paper, Brown claims to have discovered that fish feel pain just as much as larger vertebrates do and that they’re motivated by fear in much the same way humans are.

He believes that the reason we don’t see this evidence in “fishy behavior” is because our studies tend to look at fish behavior in extreme situations rather than the routine.

Brown also argues that if fish had hands, they’d be able to pick up their own food and wouldn’t have to rely on mouth-to-mouth feeding or seize prey at risk of being eaten themselves.

He says “that’s more convenient for us, but it’s not natural behavior. The fact that they can’t reach out and grab things means they miss out on a whole range of interesting or stimulating events. I want to know what causes anxiety in fish, like when you see teenagers hanging around on street corners – nothing is happening, but they wait for something to happen.

How Fish Show Their Emotion.

Fish can show emotions with their behaviors in combination with external stimuli. For instance, if you want to study the emotions of fish, you can train different groups of fish to “learn” different tricks and monitor their behavior during these tasks for indications of anxiety. The more anxious the fish becomes, the clearer it is that they are feeling an emotion like fear or stress.

“When fish are in unpleasant situations they swim around more to look for changes in their environment that might help them escape,” Brown explained. “You see similar behavior in stressed-out dogs or rats.”

This is an example of how the physiology and behavior of animals can give insight into their emotional states. While it’s easy to be skeptical of this line of research, evidence is emerging that suggests fish can experience complex emotions not unlike those experienced by other mammals.

“We know that the part of a fish’s brain that deals with fear and anxiety is very similar to the part in our brains,” Brown said. “The idea has always been that because fish are so different to humans neurologically and because they have such different behaviors to us, what goes on in a fish’s brain is not relevant to how we feel. But if it’s the case that the structure of that bit of the brain looks similar in all vertebrate animals – including fish, reptiles, birds, mammals and humans – then it means something must be retained throughout that sequence that relates to fear and anxiety.”

Fish have a distinct advantage over other animals, however. While it’s true that fish brains do not contain the same neurological structures as those found in humans or primates, some of their neurons have been shown to be remarkably similar to ours – so much so that experiments on some fish species could provide us with information about how neurons work.

Fish intelligence is quite different from the larger-brained mammals and, of course, human intelligence in many ways. Fish aren’t equipped to carry out complex reasoning tasks like humans and other mammals can and don’t possess the cognitive abilities that we take for granted. However, when it comes to emotional intelligence, fish can’t be overlooked.

In fact, as study after study has shown, some fish are actually quite intelligent and have been known to form complex social structures in their natural environment. In a 2013 review of the existing evidence for fish cognition, a group of researchers even concluded that many fish species possess high levels of intelligence, with some species having demonstrated the ability to use tools, form complex social structures and learn from one another.

Fish don’t have hands, which means they can’t directly manipulate their surroundings or pick things up in the way that humans do. However, this doesn’t mean that fish are unintelligent or unaware of their surroundings. In fact, fish have been shown to possess a number of impressive cognitive abilities compared with other animals.

For example, many fish species are capable of distinguishing between different shapes and colors. Some can learn from one another and some have been known to play tricks on each other in the wild. For example, cichlid fish have been found to engage in a behavior called “carousel feeding,” where they form a ring around a clam or other hard-shelled prey, making it impossible for their prey to escape. Then, the fish begin swimming in opposite directions, grinding the clam up and digesting it.

The secret behind cichlids’ ability to evade predators lies in their incredibly dynamic visual system.

Fish can also communicate with one another through a wide range of sounds and visual cues. They use these signals to find mates, warn other fish about predators and establish complex social structures.

Fish intelligence may be underestimated, but this doesn’t mean that their emotions are any less complex. In fact, fish have been known to experience a range of emotions including fear, anxiety and stress. When it comes to these types of feelings, there is no difference between fish and other animals – in fact, the only differences are the way in which they express their feelings and the scales they’re covered in.

For example, fish can use body language to communicate with one another and it is well documented that fish such as trout change color when exposed to new environments or different temperatures. When stressed, some fish have even been known to turn the color of the substrate on which they’re standing or swimming. When this occurs, they become less visible to predators and blend into their surroundings.

Fish can also experience emotions such as fear and stress in much the same way we do – through chemical signals known as neurotransmitters. For example, when a fish is stressed it will release hormones that have an effect on its immune system. This in turn increases the number of disease-fighting white blood cells in its bloodstream, which gives it an advantage when fighting off infections.

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