Courtney Knerr

The Non-Human Brain

Most species of octopuses have over two thirds of their neurons in their arms. This means they have more neurons dispersed throughout their bodies than in their central brain. The brains of octopuses, and most cephalopods (squids, cuttlefish, and nautiluses), act as the central control, but in the same way that a baseball coach stays on the sidelines and simply tells the team what to do. The brain doesn’t really do any of the work; that is left to the eight ganglia (groups of neurons) in the arms of the animal.

As an octopus navigates the ocean floor, one arm may pick up a clam shell, hoping for a meal, and the chemoreceptors (neurons that detect chemicals) on its suckers will deduce whether or not there is a clam in the shell. If there is, the ganglion of that arm will send signals called action potentials to each of the densely packed muscle fibers in its boneless arm to create a coordinated movement that pulls the clam to the octopus’s mouth. This whole time, as the octopus moves across the mosaic of colorful coral covering the seafloor toward its prey, the organism’s skin is engaged in the process of camouflage. Rhodopsin molecules (the same ones humans have in their eyes) in every inch of its skin have been processing the colors below them and sending signals to nearby pigment cells, which expand to change the octopus’s skin color and camouflage the animal according to its surroundings.

While all this is going on in its legs and skin, who knows what is going on in its central brain? Maybe its distributed sense of self allows its thoughts to spread throughout its body, or maybe it doesn’t even have thoughts in the same way that we do, since its neurons are not localized in one place. The possibilities are endless when you consider species that have evolved different neural structures; structures in which the very essence of their being is created.

My major, “Evolution and Implications of Animal Neuroscience” focuses on exploring these unique subjective experiences of other species derived from their varying brain structures, and cephalopods are only one amazing example. Great gray owls live in a world colored by their exquisitely precise sense of hearing; they can locate a vole under multiple feet of snow from 100 yards away just by hearing the soft rustle of it taking a step. A dog has such a strong sense of smell that it can detect some odors in parts per trillion (10,000 to 100,000 times better than humans). Dogs perceive countless scents that create a narrative of all the people, dogs, or squirrels that have been nearby recently. The variations of brain structures are endless. My education has introduced me to this world of different worlds, and it has taught me is that these capabilities that we learn about in other species are their superpowers, not their evolutionary feats on a scale of “stupid” to “human.”

The latter anthropocentric view, however, is the norm in STEM classrooms. We understand the brains and experiences of other species through the lens of our own biological feats. The nervous systems of other animals are labelled as either similar to humans or less than humans. But humans are not the epitome of intelligence; we possess only one version of it. Evolution has produced all sorts of intelligent ways to navigate this world, and these ingenious adaptations construct realities for other species that we as humans, very literally, cannot fathom. So, who are we to judge their intelligence based on what our brains can comprehend about it? We give ourselves a great deal of credit because our brains are the ones we most intimately understand, but once you get to know the brains that fly through the Rockies and swim along the Great Barrier Reef, the human brain doesn’t quite seem like the best model anymore.

This anthropocentric paradigm is interwoven in our policies, speech, and everyday actions. At Colorado College, I have noticed a lack of critical discussions that consider the role of non-human animals. In many places such as dissection labs, animal research labs, and primary literature discussions in classrooms where non-human animals are a part of the conversation, their intellect, rights, and welfare are not. Instead, students are shuffled through their scientific education without having to address their responsibilities towards non-human animals that they work with. Changing this lack of awareness and creating a more thoughtful and compassionate generation of future scientists is going to require professors to facilitate more dialogue and students to be brave enough to speak up and ask the right questions.


My science education at CC started off with Introduction to Psychology. We went through the typical psychology curriculum, learning about classical experiments that have influenced what we know about the field today. The Milgram Experiment made participants believe that they were administering painful shocks to other participants, and the Stanford Prison Experiment involved designating participants as prisoners and guards and allowing the situation to unfold to see how they would act. Both of these studies inflicted serious mental trauma on the participants and would not be repeated under today’s ethical guidelines for humans. Now, the American Psychological Association outlines the following rights for human participants: protection from harm (including mental), informed consent so that they can decide whether or not to participate, freedom to withdraw at any time without losing possible compensation, confidentiality, and debriefing after the fact so that they know what the purpose of the study was. Despite this, much of modern psychology is based on the valuable information we learned from studies like the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment—ones that occurred before these regulations were in place


Roger Hock, the author of my textbook for Introduction to Psychology, “Forty Studies that Changed Psychology,” described these studies as “research [that] could not be replicated under today’s ethical principles.” He adds, “The lack of guidelines, however, does not excuse past researchers for abuses.” He then discusses non-human animal rights in research, which are more controversial than human rights “because animals cannot be protected, as humans can, with informed consent, freedom to withdraw, or debriefing.” Although it is true that we cannot fully communicate with non-human animals or understand what they are thinking, Hock discounts the fact that we can try, and in doing so, can minimize their suffering. Throughout the past decade, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, has been conducting the “Dog Project,” a series of research experiments in which he trains dogs to go into an MRI machine, awake and not strapped down, and perform cognitive tasks during scans. They do many practice trials before conducting the actual research, so the dogs better understand what they are getting into when they hear their commands, and they have the freedom to leave the machine at any point. Berns also looks for signs of stress in the dogs throughout the research and releases them from the study if they seem to be suffering any stress during the experiments. This methodology gives the dogs a type of self-determination; they have protection from harm, freedom to withdraw, and relatively informed consent.

Hock then explains his idea of the animal rights perspective: “Animal rights activists take the view that … animals are equal in value to humans and, therefore, any use of animals by humans is seen as unethical. This use includes eating a chicken, wearing leather, and owning pets (which, according to some animal-rights activists, is a form of slavery).” This is the platform of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), an animal rights group that represents the extreme end of the spectrum. In describing animal rights activism this way, Hock fails to acknowledge the majority of animal rights activists who are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and believe that improvements can be made to research in STEM fields. Hock then asserts, “However, nearly all scientists and most Americans believe that the limited and humane use of animals in scientific research is necessary and beneficial. Many lifesaving drugs and medical techniques have been developed through the use of animal experimental subjects … The primary reason animals are used in research is that to carry out similar research on humans clearly would be unethical.”

 Again, Hock is ignoring any middle ground, and painting a picture that those who support any consideration of better treatment for lab animals are in the miniscule minority. Hock justifies the use of lab animals with the fact that those studies have contributed a lot to science, an attribute that he also gave to the Milgram Study and Stanford Prison Experiment earlier on the same page, which could not be repeated today due to the harm they inflicted on the participants. And of course, the type of research done on non-human animals “clearly would be unethical” if done on humans. This distinction, which to me seemed like a very difficult line to draw, was brushed under the rug as if it was clear-cut and not worth discussing.

This was the end of the conversation about animal rights in my Introduction to Psychology class, a required intro-level course for both psychology and neuroscience—two fields that are inextricably tied to animal research. The class also includes a supplementary lab that requires students to train a rat to roll a marble down a track and push a lever for food over the course of multiple weeks. There are always rumors circulating about the fate of the rats after the class is over. According to the rumors, most of the rats end up being fed live to raptors, whereas the smartest of the group go back into the breeding colony for the next class, but none of this was addressed or clarified for students. So, I felt a little in the dark when I was given an animal to work with that I knew nothing about. I was not informed where it came from, why it was allowed to be here, or where it would go once it tested out of the lab. I felt not only that the psychology department was hiding something, but also that my education was lacking. As the person actually working with the animal, I felt I had a responsibility to be aware of these things in order to practice responsible research.

Continuing through my scientific education at CC, I moved onto classes like Biology of Animals and Neuroscience, in which we did dissections. Despite the fact that we dissected a quail, a shark, and a sheep heart, we did not have a conversation or even a reading covering the ethics of dissection. Unless students asked directly, the professor did not tell us where the specimens came from, and did not inform us of the purpose of these dissections and why it was necessary to use real specimens instead of models or pictures. We were not even asked whether or not we wanted to participate. If a student physically couldn’t stomach the lab, that was understood, but I was made to feel as if there was no room for moral qualms, because dissections have always been a part of science, and this is how students learn.

I am not saying that dissections do not teach students a great deal—I only understand brain structure so well because of the donated human brains in the psychology lab—but those were donated by choice, and the department was very transparent about where they came from. With non-human animal dissections, an organism’s life is taken, and their bodies are passed out to every student in the classroom. To me, this warrants more critical thinking before diving in with a scalpel, but once again, I was left feeling like there was a gap in the conversation.

In my neuroscience class, we dissected cow brains. They were used more sparingly, with eight students per brain, but again, the professors gave no insight into that decision or process. We also did a lab in which we gave rats amphetamine, a type of drug that is known to induce repetitive motor movement called stereotypy in mammals. We observed their behavior, which indeed turned out to be stereotypy. When the lab was explained to us, despite the methodological techniques learned through it, I felt that the educational value didn’t fully justify how we w using the rats, and I wished we could either watch a video instead or do a different lab. For this reason, I was tempted to ask my professors if I could opt out. Not wanting to miss out on something unforeseen that I could learn from this lab, I decided to give my professors the benefit of the doubt and still participate.

I still wanted to make sure that this lab was not harmful or distressing for the rats, though. So I asked my professor if it was, and I got a very short answer, ensuring me that the rats were fine. Even when I tried to ask again and clearly express my concerns for the mental well-being of the rats, I was not given any type of explanation of the mental effects of the drug, but instead another assurance that they would be fine. To their credit, the professor was genuinely trying to reassure me, but did not seem to grasp that I was hoping for a more thorough discussion considering the educational necessity of potentially harming animals. It was simply not on their radar that a student would be asking for such an explanation, and that in itself was really disheartening to me. I ended up expressing my concerns in the course evaluation, not wanting to confront my professors and risk losing their respect over an issue I felt very unsure about or being more burdensome than I was already made to feel from approaching them the first time. In retrospect, I could have been more direct and set up a meeting with the professors in order to fully discuss my issues with the lab, but at that point, they were just potential concerns. However, when concerns like that arise for students, the conversation I was asking for should be more accessible than it was to me.

My most recent STEM class in the Organismal Biology and Ecology department solidified my realization that this lack of discussion on the use of animals in laboratories is a real problem at CC. Not only is the discussion left out of classes that perform labs and dissections involving animals, but it is left out of classes that read primary literature regularly for the sole purpose of discussing it. The field of physiology was popular in the 20th century, so we read and discussed a lot of studies that used outdated techniques that caused unnecessary stress and harm for the animal participants.

For example, in 1979, Warren M. Zapol and a team of scientists performed one of countless studies on blood flow in Weddell seals during forced dives. They learned valuable information about the blood pressure changes that diving mammals have evolved to allow them to dive for long periods of time, but the experiment involved a thoracic aorta catheter and forced dives. This means they surgically inserted a tube into the seals’ hearts that was connected to a machine outside of their bodies that measured heart rate and blood pressure while they were tilted backwards and had their heads submerged in a bucket of water to simulate a dive. One can only imagine how painful and terrifying this must have been for those seals. In our class, we acknowledged that these studies were overly stressful for the seals and were causing the research to be inaccurate because they were unable to simulate dives below the animal’s aerobic dive limit. But we did not acknowledge that the studies were overly stressful and painful to the point that we should strive to design more ethical studies today.

We also read studies about crabs with poles glued to their backs, and loggerhead sea turtles that were taken from their environment, and made to perform orientation tests in pools while strapped into harnesses. The welfare of these animals did not make it into our conversations. When it was brought up how stressful or harmful these experiments were, students usually laughed it off with a comments like, “That’s terrible.”


At this point in my education, I am almost two years into a major composed of classes in biology and physiology of non-human animals, neuroscience, and psychology. Since all of these classes involved non-human animals in some way, discussions of the use of those animals in research and how what we know about neuroscience applies to making responsible decisions about non-human animals should be present. Instead, I have been met with not only a lack of discussion on the topic, but a resistance to it. This is especially frustrating at an institution that is meant to encourage critical thinking about subjects like these.

It is worth noting that I have yet to take some upper level classes such as Cognitive Neuroethology that may include the types of conversations that I am looking for, but it is still important that these conversations are present in all classes that deal with non-human animals. The discussion needs to be paired with any mention or use of non-human animals, in the same way that the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments bring with them conversations about the ethics of human research. Otherwise, the message sent to students is that talking about the benefits and costs of using non-human animals for research is just not an important aspect to consider.

CC is a microcosm of a broader political atmosphere, in which the issue of animal rights is perceived as an extremely polarized one. The way the issue is usually portrayed, is that on one side are people who abuse animals with a clear conscience for the benefit of the meat industry, scientific research, or the production of animal products while the other side consists of “militant,” radical activists that want to completely prohibit any use of animals with no concern for the wealth of scientific knowledge they provide. In reality, there is a well-represented middle ground, but the more that the former side hides in fear of their companies and labs being shut down, and the more that the latter side expresses anger rather than rationality, the more those two sides are pushed apart and the less open dialogue there is. This type of dynamic only pushes us further from finding solutions that accomplish what both sides really want: humane treatment of non-human animals.

This was made apparent to me when I met with one of my neuroscience professors, Dr. Lori Driscoll, who does research looking at the effects of probiotics on social behaviors in rats. Initially, I had not planned to meet with her due to my own polarized misconception about scientists who do research on non-human animals. I did not even consider the idea that she would be willing to have a conversation with me about changing the dialogue around non-human animals in STEM classrooms, because I prematurely assumed what her viewpoint would be—in doing that, I was exacerbating the problem.

In talking to her, I learned that she and Dr. Krista Fish, an anthropology professor that conducts primarily observational research on primates, had taken the initiative to create an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at CC. This is a committee that oversees and regulates all research with live vertebrate animals. They consider things like housing conditions, psychological welfare, invasiveness of observational studies, safety of both the participants and researchers, and the cost benefit balance between the educational value and the suffering of the participant(s). All federally funded research institutions are required to have this committee, but as a private institution, CC is not required to have one and didn’t until about four years ago. Despite all the additional meticulous paperwork and fleshing out of protocols for researchers, Driscoll and Fish both remarked that starting the committee “was just the right thing to do.”


Since its creation, IACUC has already spurred many positive changes at CC, the first being an introductory video that is now shown to all students in introductory psychology before they start the rat lab. The video explains the lifecycle of a rat in the CC breeding colony and dispels many of the commonly circulating rat lab rumors. Rats are bred based on genetic diversity, not based on which rats test out first and are “the smartest.” There is no selective breeding going on. The rats that don’t go back into the breeding colony after being used for the lab are sent to the Pueblo Raptor Center. Previously, they were transported to the center alive so that they could be live catch for the raptors, which improves the survival rates of the raptors that are released. But the stress that this process induced for the rats was deemed too much by IACUC, and the rats are now euthanized before being sent to the raptor center.

The video also explains how to care for the rats and what behavioral signs are indicators of stress or illness. Naturally, as psychologists, before permanently putting the video into the curriculum, the professors in the department first conducted an experiment to determine whether it would be effective. They studied two classes, and showed only one the video. Students from both classes took a written survey about the purpose of the lab afterwards. Driscoll remarked that “the students who saw the video provided richer and more informed responses about what the purpose of the exercise was and about in general what the benefits are and what the downsides are of using animals in research.” Having that extra education about the non-human animals they were working with—knowing the cost of their use and understanding their behavior a little better—seemed to promote greater intentionality in the exercise and help the students understand that working with the animals was a privilege. This result “put everybody in the department at ease, and now [the video is used] as a standard part of the introduction to the rat lab,” Driscoll said.

IACUC is a great step towards filling in this gap in conversations and awareness at CC, but it doesn’t cover everything. Just in terms of species, it only covers vertebrates, which Dr. Emilie Gray, a professor in the OBE department, remarked is problematic. Driscoll also remarked that “insects have a lot of the basic structures we do; they avoid painful stimuli,” and cephalopods are classified as invertebrates as well. IACUC also doesn’t cover all the non-human animal classroom experiences at CC; it doesn’t regulate dissections since the tissue is dead, and it doesn’t regulate classroom discussions of non-human animals.

Since IACUC is not meticulously reviewing the procedures and education surrounding dissections, that responsibility is left to professors and students. Right now, there is no discussion of the educational importance, the necessity of the species, the number of specimens ordered, or the sourcing of the specimens. Many of the professors I interviewed knew the name of the company that CC orders specimens from, but could only make guesses about where that company gets the animals. Driscoll remarked that we should be “selectively avoiding suppliers who are irresponsible in thinking about where their tissues are coming from.” Driscoll and Bob Jacobs (the other neuroscience professor) are conscientious about only ordering the brains that they need, having found that eight students per brain is the maximum number of students that can work on one brain and still see what’s going on, but again, this reasoning is not mentioned to the students doing the lab. I think that initiating this conversation before dissections would have the same effect that the video had for the rat lab: increased intentionality of the students and a more tangible appreciation for the costs of their learning. When asked about implementing this in her curriculum, Gray responded that “it would be possible … to take a moment and talk about the source of the animal, and maybe make more explicit what students are going to get out of it rather than this just being a fun activity, and making sure you respect the animals that you’re dissecting.”

IACUC also doesn’t regulate classroom discussions about research articles involving non-human animals, but there are still ways that both students and professors can increase respect and consideration of non-human animals. In the psychology department, Jacobs has taken a positive step to promote this extra consideration of non-human animals. In his classroom, he has changed his language around the intelligence of other species so that it isn’t so anthropocentric. For starters, he uses the term “non-human animals” instead of simply “animals,” which removes the constructed dichotomy between humans and every other species. Second, he intentionally avoids starting every sentence about another species with a comparison to humans (phrased like “unlike humans” or “slightly smaller than that of a human, this brain structure...”). And finally, when discussing research about animals, the question of How does this inform our knowledge of the analogous human structure? or How does this help humans? doesn’t immediately follow every explanation. Non-human animals provide valuable models for human diseases and biological processes, but learning about them is also important for veterinary medicine and for understanding the amazing diversity of the animal kingdom.


So, if you are reading this as someone afraid of the downfall of the laboratories and companies that depend on the use of non-human animals, I hope that you can take a second to consider the immense intellectual and emotional capacity of other species and see why there should be an increase in consideration of and respect for non-human animals. And if you are reading this as someone trying your best to fight for the rights of non-human animals and having trouble understanding how people in this world can treat them in the way that they do, I hope that you can look through the eyes of researchers who do see the suffering that their study participants experience and are wishing that working with live subjects wasn’t the current method for advancing science. Regarding the rats in her own lab, Driscoll remarked, “I hope for the day when we don’t do any non-human animal research anymore.” There are also researchers, such as Jacobs, who conduct research on non-human animals, but only work with dead, donated tissue, so that no non-human animals are harmed or killed for the benefit of the research.

The issue of animal rights, in reality, is not very polarized, because many people with seemingly different viewpoints actually just want what’s best for non-human animals. According to a Gallup poll from 2015, when asked about what type of protection non-human animals deserve (encompassing research labs, the meat industry, amusement parks, circuses, zoos, etc.), 32 percent of people said they deserve the same rights as humans and 3 percent said they don’t need much protection. But the large majority (62 percent) had a view somewhere in the middle, believing that while non-human animals can still be used for the benefit of humans, they do deserve some protection.

Most people want more protection for non-human animals, so rather than hiding from one other, we should be working to increase transparency and productive dialogue. At CC, this is of utmost importance, because the students here will go on to set the standards for scientific research and education in the future. As an institution, we need to be receptive to IACUC, think critically about our curriculum surrounding the use of non-human animals, and check our own language to make sure we are speaking about non-human animals with the respect that they deserve. 

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019