Around about 300 odd years ago, the Frenchman René Descartes discovered what for him was the final proof of our existence as humans: “I think, therefore I am” was his conclusion, with which Thought was raised to the status of God, Reason became Almighty. When I was an adolescent I remember regarding thinking as the ultimate instrument to achieve one’s goals and being fascinated, mostly, with my own mental processes which at that time produced mainly judgements of others (read, my parents especially my mother), unreachable fantasies and unreasonable (I can see now) fears. It also produced stories, which is probably why I became a writer. What stories the picture below might have evoked when I was young!
I was taught, heard or just simply imagined and came to believe that thinking was what distinguished me from animals and made me human. Thinking and the images and language it is formed by is what gave me and my species the possibility of crawling out of our caves and building sprawling metropolises, of studying the stars and understanding the Universe, of communicating complex realities to others of my kind; thinking led to art and war, to literature and murder, to music and the incredible human capability for destruction, to religions and slavery, to charity and abuse. But I truly believed it was what made us human and if we could just control it, we would be like God.
Today, I have learned differently: we are not alone in the animal world to think. Dogs think. Salomé thinks. I have watched her in the process, seen the results and realized many things about reason that I have ignored most of my life. Allow me to offer up my proof. Salomé thinks because she dreams; all dogs dream. Anyone who owns a dog has watched them cry and whimper and move their feet while asleep and has thought ‘my dog thinks it’s chasing something’. Their dreams, the same as ours, are based on images, and the body (theirs and ours) reacts to the images the mind is producing with movements and emotions (the whimpering). I do not know whether fruit flies dream, or eagles, but I would bet that elephants and tigers do.
But, Salomé’s thinking goes beyond dreams even though, I must admit, it never comes out as language. However, language is all it is missing: it is thought (images accompanied by bodily sensations and emotions much as dreams are) nonetheless. I have observed her while she is in the process of thinking and as far as I can see her thoughts are motivated by two things: either she wants something or she fears something.
When she wants my attention, she will come to where I am and intensely gaze at me. I will then tell her: “Go get Squeak (her little blue mouse)” or “Bring the sock” or “Look for the ball”. She’ll stand gazing at me for one or two seconds, turn her head in the direction of her toy basket, look down at her feet for a split second more and suddenly get up, trot to the basket and pull out the toy I have asked her for. It is not an ingrained reaction: she has to think about it, turn it over in her mind (the name), find the right image and go get it.
Salomé also has a very good memory. As I drop her off at the hairdresser’s (something she detests), I tell her that when she gets home she will have a “prize”, a “biscuit”. Two hours later, when we come through the door, her all posh and prim, she races for the cupboard where the dog biscuits are kept and sits in front of it until I take out the promised reward. It is not just repeated action for somewhere in her dog-mind she must connect the bath, the promise and the prize over time: this is thought.
Lately, her cognitive capacities seem to have taken on new tasks. Before, when a ball went under the bed or under a chair beyond her reach, she would wait a long time staring in the direction of the desired object until finally barking once (something she never does) to get my attention. Now, I have noticed that the ball goes under the bed or a chair much more frequently, especially when I am busy and have refused her invitation to stop what I am doing and play. Could it be that she is intentionally making the ball inaccessible so that I come to the known summons?
The most interesting of her thought processes, however, is produced by fear. Lately, Salomé has become a fearful dog because she has had two disagreeable experiences, one that could have been fatal. The less important one has to do with the wooden staircases in our building where we have lived without incidence for going on 5 years. However, this year has been extraordinarily abundant in rain and the times that Salomé has had to climb the stairs with wet paws has multiplied out of proportion. Apparently, one or two of those times, her paws slipped as she ran up the stairs and she was near falling; maybe it happened more frequently, I didn’t notice until one day I got to the top of the stairs and realized that she was sitting at the bottom, in front of the first step and looking up at me without budging. I called her. Nothing. I threatened her. Nothing. I went into the apartment and closed the door loudly. When I came out again she hadn’t moved a muscle. I said the magic word “prize-biscuit” and even that could not get her to put a foot on the steps. So I grabbed a towel, went all the way down the two flights of stairs again, and dried each separate paw carefully. When I was through, I gently urged her up each level of steps and she didn’t once slip. As a matter of fact, as I carry a hand towel in my bag now and dry her feet whenever it rains, she has only slipped when she ‘believes’ she must race up or leap over the last steps precisely to avoid slipping. The stairs, however, continue to present a problem and I must remember to not to race up on my own because I am thinking of something else, but rather to stay with her and urge her gently up one level at a time until reaching the top. It is trying to say the least but when I forget I have to go all the way down again, for there is absolutely nothing that will make her budge no matter how many times she has gone up without slipping. This goes to prove that it is fear above all that glues the experience into our emotional/thought path, and repeats it over and over again even if it never recurs.
The other negative experience came from one day when I was throwing the ball for her across the driveway. A car come zipping in and Salomé disappeared underneath. I screamed so loud, the car stopped. I continued screaming because my mind was flashing pictures of a mashed and bloody Salomé, hurt beyond repair and suffering. Terrified I rushed over, knelt down and extracted her from right next to the front tire. She didn’t have a scratch on her, but nonetheless my mind kept playing over and over the horrid imagined images. To calm myself, I cuddled her in my arms, although all she wanted to do was to continue playing with the ball. Because her reaction had not been immediate, I thought there was none (I thought…) but I was wrong. A few days later, I was throwing the ball once again in the driveway (but from where I could see the entrance so as to catch an incoming car) and she was chasing it, when suddenly I threw it and she sat down and watched it roll away. This happened a few times and I could see she was afraid of running after the ball, but there was no car. I began throwing the ball on the lawn so that the driveway was not involved, and once again, she went for it several times and then suddenly stopped. No car, but she was obviously afraid of something. After trial and error, I finally got it. It was not the sight of a car that frightened her, but the sound of the motor which, in each case, had been produced not by passing traffic, but by some car coming into an adjoining driveway when there was no noise of traffic on the street outside. When this happened the moment she was about to chase the ball, she stopped dead in her tracks and sat down. It was obvious that she had not seen the car, but had definitely heard it
What I find so fascinating about the thinking caused by fear in Salomé’s case is that no matter how many experiences to the contrary, she has a pattern ingrained by fear that is indelible. To me this explains a lot about the supposed “traumas” humans suffer as infants, and the fact that they can determine behavior during a whole lifetime if not attended by therapy or some other effective method. Take the stairs for example: Salomé slipped once yet every time she faces the climb, her mind repeats the danger as a ‘given’, which makes her body react with fear without the actual slipping being necessary. If she were a human child, and were not helped over this initial fear (which repeats even if the act does not), she would, upon looking back much later, probably express as: “When I was young I always slipped on the stairs”. A therapist would ask her to remember exactly how many times this had happened and, wouldn’t she be surprised to finally realize it had actually happened only once. I have tried to explain this to Salomé, but alas, the lack of a spoken language prevents me from changing her pattern.
What makes me different from Salomé –and this certainly does not imply better or smarter or anything for that matter- is that as a human trained to not only remember images, sounds, tastes and feels, but also to interpret them using my very special instrument called “language”, I build a story around the images: I think in words. Therefore, when I replay a disagreeable instant such as Salomé disappearing under the moving car, I not only see a mashed and bloody dog, but I also produce a story line: “she’s hurt, she’s suffering, I won’t be able to do anything, it is my fault, I did it wrong, I’m terrible, I made a mistake,” and with every thought I feel the corresponding emotion of fear, sorrow, powerlessness, guilt, self-loathing, despair and so on, until the complete movie becomes installed in my memory box substituting the reality that Salomé was fine, that nothing happened. Henceforth, I will replay and relive my movie over and over again as if it were reality, while reality itself has escaped me.
If you have any doubt of this, sit quietly with your eyes closed remembering a traumatic moment in your life, notice the images and watch the interpretations arise along with the accompanying emotions exactly as if you were sitting in a movie theater watching a film. Sometimes, the accompanying interpretation is not apparent because the emotion comes so rapidly it is lost, but if I ask myself what my thoughts were at that instant, the mind jumps in and all the interpretations and judgements appear. This is how we construct reality, with dreams and nightmares, products of our imagination that are carved into the DVD of the mind to replay at a moment’s notice when something in reality evokes a past experience. Thus, at every moment, the present isinterpreted by a past that does not exist which in turn is projected into a future that doesn’t exist either.
So here we are, in this giant movie theater called The World, producing the movie of our life and replaying it over and over again, taking scenes from the past and projecting them into the future, with hope (the biscuit) or with fear (the stairs), while this present instant, the only possible reality, slips inexorably by.
Perhaps we should invert Descarte’s maximum to read: I am, and therefore I think, and begin to notice how much of our reality actually is made up of nothing but thoughts and how much of our life which takes place in the present we actually miss because we are lost in them.