Animal Minds: puzzling over Puppies and Parrots

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Area: Science
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School
Topics: animals, Consciousness, Epistemology, Identity, knowledge, Mind, Personhood, science, self
Estimated Time Necessary: 2-3 hours

Lesson Plan

Critical reading
To read an article and/or watch a video to ascertain what claims are being made.
Evaluate the strength of the claims made.
Reflect on the concept of mind as used for animals and humans.

For much of modern science, since the Enlightenment, animals were generally thought to be automatons:  materialist robots programmed to behave in certain ways.  Rene Descartes drew a sharp distinction between thinking beings, humans, and everything else, matter.  20th Century behaviorism continued to think of animals in this way but added humans to the mix.  “Mind” was a myth, a “ghost in the machine“, and did not really exist.  All that counted was behavior and we did not think to complicate science by positing a “mind” behind the actions.

But in recent decades the question of the animal mind has come to the fore again.  The question of an animal mind is a difficult one:

  1. You want to avoid anthropomorphizing species by claiming similarities to our experiences simply on the basis that they look similar.
  2. You want also to avoid denying similarities just because they are, well, animals and not humans.

Connected to this are a set of wonderful questions about consciousness, the marks of mind, intentionality, self-awareness, and the basic challenge for us of understanding a being which is not completely analogous to a human and may be quite alien.  Think: snakes, mosquitos, fish.

This lesson will introduce students to a reading from National Geographic online on animal minds and a TED video on animal awareness by Franz DeWaal.  Use these two sources to get students discussing the criteria for a mind, the scientific process of testing hypotheses, and the important questions about how we can know.

A. Read this short online article from National Geographic which details some experiments to prove that animals have minds.  As you are reading it, note the criteria or signs used to point to a “mind.”  Discuss your answers to the questions below.

B. Watch the Franz DeWaal video (see below) about animals showing compassion and a sense of justice.  Discuss the questions below.

C. What difference would it make if animals had minds?  Create a class chart on the differences it would make, or not make.



Discussion Questions

  • With regard to the National Geographic article: what skills or behaviors have generally been used to claim the presence of mind and thought?
  • Evaluate the claims made by Irene Pepperberg about her parrot. Do you agree with her claims or could you offer an alternative explanation?
  • What evidence is offered for animal creativity? Which appears most persuasive to you?
  • What is the significance of being able to discern that a picture of a frisbee can designate both itself and an actual frisbee?
  • What makes deception a particularly complex thought process? Offer your own example.
  • After watching the Franz DeWaal video of his work with animals and moral judgement and feeling, in what ways does this suggest animals have minds?
  • As a group, offer your own definition of the criteria for something to be considered a mind. What would this include or exclude?


This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Wendy C. Turgeon, St. Joseph's College.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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