Can Animals Think? What Does Research Tell Us?

Anne Marble
4 min readNov 16, 2022

Can animals think? People used to think this was a simple question and that the answer was nope. But it’s a complicated question with more answers than you can throw a stick at.

A young dog with beseeching brown eyes and short dark fur looks up at the reader. He is standing on a hardwood floor with a chair just visible behind him.
A Young Dog Named Wally. (Source: Photo by the Author.)

My History With This Question

One day, my grade school teacher declared that animals cannot think. Humans can think, but animals can’t. It was as simple as that. Even as a child, I thought that sounded wrong.

I didn’t have the words (or the courage!) to ask, “But what do you mean by think?” Or even “But what about dolphins?”

I didn’t even have a pet (allergies), but I knew the teacher was giving animals short shrift. Sure, we don’t know if the simpler animals can think. (And define “simpler.”) But cats and dogs? Horses? Lions, tigers, and bears (oh my)?

It would be one thing if she said, “Most animals live by instinct rather than rational thought.” Maybe that’s what she meant — and she was trying to keep it simple.

Or maybe she truly believed that animals didn’t think. It was the late 1960s, so many believed that. Maybe she was brought up to believe that animals didn’t think. That makes it easier to believe animals don’t feel. And that’s kind of sad. That attitude makes it easier for people to dismiss the suffering of animals. It makes it easier for people to do things like abandon pets. Or worse.

Also, she wasn’t the only teacher who said something along those lines. I even heard this claim in college, where you’d think the teachers would know better.

In college, a sociology teacher told the class that animals operate on instinct, and humans do not. (Because if I had a question about animal behavior, the first person I’d go to is a sociologist. Not!) When classmates pointed out things like the motherly instinct, the sociology professor reminded us that human mothers often neglect or abuse their children.

Yet… Some animals neglect their babies. Or reject their young. Or worse. Yes, there are usually environmental reasons for that. But maybe they don’t operate solely on instinct either? To be fair, that teacher’s knowledge of cultural anthropology was incredible! I learned a lot from those lectures.

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Anne Marble

I’m a writer and a copy editor with experience in editing science and engineering articles. Click Lists to find my most popular articles. And hidden gems.