Dinosaurs are the most well-loved extinct species on the planet. Being a fan of dinosaurs, the question might arise if they could love us back.
Emotions in animals is a really tricky topic on its own. The question of whether non-human animals feel what we think of as emotions has been debated since it was first asked. For most of our civilization’s history, we depended on the idea of the soul to define our feelings. In our more modern scientific understanding, though, emotions have a much less mystical view. A majority of scientists today would say that emotions can be directly tied to our physiology.
If that is the case for humans, why couldn’t it be for animals? And if it holds up for modern animals, it might as well be a consideration for extinct ones. Before we make any educated guesses, though, we first need to understand where those physiological ties lie.
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Disregarding any philosophical views, emotions can be studied both neurologically and physiologically in humans. Neurological factors in emotion regulation are pretty vast and include various neurotransmitters and hormones.
The most important things to look at when discussing emotions physiologically and neurologically, though, are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
These systems are a part of the peripheral nervous system, which runs everything in the body that isn’t the brain and spinal cord. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) involves stress and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) involves the relaxation of the body. Commonly, this has given them the nicknames of “fight or flight” for SNS and “rest and digest” for PNS.
When the body is responding to signals from the SNS, a few key physical changes happen. As in the nickname, the body gets ready to either defend itself or run. Both of these situations require all of the blood to go to the brain and the muscles for protection and agility. This most commonly results in a faster heart rate, a warmer body temperature, and a loss of breath.
In the PNS, the opposite responses happen. Heart rate goes down, body temperature drops, and muscles are relaxed. Digestion also works better here, as the proper amount of energy is being given to the digestive system.
These physiological responses are a key representation in animal emotion. Excitation, fear, and anger are all represented by SNS responses. Relaxation, boredom, and sadness are represented by the PNS. So, the best way to read these emotions in animals is to read their physiological responses.
Briefly, it’s important to talk about what the most popular method of emotion-gauging in animals is and why we can’t use it here. Behavior is most frequently watched as a way for people to understand how animals are feeling. Facial expression and other social cues in animals can cue us into reasons for their actions. That being said, behavior is not a factor that we should be looking at.
When it comes to behavior, we need to be able to see the animal interact with the world around it. While that it’s easy to do with modern animals, the same can’t really be said for dinosaurs. That is why in this conversation, behavior must be ignored. If we aren’t able to compare anything concrete about dinosaurs and the modern animals that we are discussing, we can’t claim to know anything about dinosaurs.
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Understanding Animal Emotions
There are a few big differences between how humans experience emotion and how animals do. This can mostly be attributed to different levels of intelligence.
We don’t really have an idea if the depth of feeling is different across the board, but we know that the complexity does not go much farther than us. Dependent on the animal’s intelligence, emotions can range from fully complex to entirely dependent on instinct.
While intelligence is more frequently measured by testing in humans, other evidence has to be found when talking about animals. There have been theories about the correlation between relative brain size and intelligence for hundreds of years, but there isn’t a ton of evidence to back that up.
Relative brain size refers to how big the brain is in relation to the size of the creature. This sounds good in theory, but when looked at as a massive practice gives mice the same level of intelligence as humans. Obviously, something is missing here.
Instead of measuring the overall size of the brain as a model for intelligence, researchers have begun looking closer. Now, one area of the brain is being regarded as showing a correlation between intelligence and size: the cerebral cortex.
The cerebral cortex is home to a lot of different important processes, but overall these processes come together to form what we believe is consciousness. Thinking, creating, understanding and responding to speech are all processes found in the cerebral cortex.
Now that we have a measurement for intelligence to go off of, we can compare what very little we know about dinosaur brains to the intelligence levels of their closest family members today, birds. Birds have been unfairly referred to as less intelligent animals for a lot of human history. There is a very good chance that this assumption has been way off.
Research has shown that the number of neurons in the cerebral cortexes of birds (specifically macaws) is significant, even surpassing some primates. When ranked among other animals, birds usually come somewhere above rodents but below animals like dogs or cats.
Complex problem solving is their game, but complex emotional capacity may not be. Many believe that birds have a limited understanding of emotion and tie most of that feeling to instinctual responses. Fear, for example, is an instinctual response while love is not.
When we think about instinctual emotions, we might also look at the limbic system. The limbic system is the neural hub for basic emotional and physical satiation. It includes a few very important brain areas, like the hippocampus and amygdala.
The limbic system is also sometimes called the “lizard brain”. This comes from the belief that most reptiles’ brains are about as simple as the limbic system in ours. This makes their emotional and intellectual needs pretty basic: eating, protecting itself, and procreating.
As reptiles are the second closest relatives to dinosaurs on earth today, you could definitely infer that dinosaurs’ brains were not complex enough to face much more than those core, instinctual feelings.
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Now we can look at what we know about the size of dinosaur’s brains. That old comparison of a dinosaur’s brain to a walnut is not without reason. The stegosaurus’ brain was actually around the size of a large nut, which is incredible in comparison to its massive body.
There are dinosaurs, like the tyrannosaurus rex, that didn’t have terribly small brains. Though, it seems to be true that theirs were smaller than most mammals of comparable size.
This does give us a lot more context for understanding the relative intelligence of dinosaurs. Like any species, intelligence is varied among the group. What we can assume, though, is that the most intelligent of the dinosaurs were probably about as intelligent as most birds today. Meaning, they probably depended mostly on instinctual emotions.
I think it’s important to point out that all animals with the proper brain structures are going to feel some kind of emotion. Birds and reptiles can feel all of those basic, instinctual feelings. So, we can imagine that dinosaurs did as well.
Though we cannot really define feelings like love or care physiologically, it’s difficult to believe that creatures who feel pain and excitation would not have any capacity for them. That gives me enough reason to believe that dinosaurs could have had even minor complex emotions.
The most important thing to remember in discussions like this is that it is just that: a discussion. Unfortunately, due to our lack of live dinosaurs to study, we will probably never know if they felt emotions for certain.
We haven’t really nailed down if modern animals feel emotions right now, so it’s a debate that will probably last forever. But I would say that if you believe that your pet parrot has emotions, you can believe that dinosaurs felt at a similar depth.
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