In search of ponies: Fish have brains, feelings too

It’s hard to imagine any intelligence behind the bulging eyes and rhythmically billowing cheeks as they inhale bits of sediment from between colored rocks, then routinely spit it back out.

Swimming circles around the beautiful environments created for them by humans, the repetition of their patterned movements seem rote rather than calculated or discriminating — another reason to see them as one step above plants yet miles below humans.

Sharna Johnson

Sharna Johnson

Yet fish are smart, according to an Australian researcher, who proposes that not only do we severely underestimate their capabilities, we also disregard their feelings.

Yes, that’s right, fish have feelings too, according to Culum Brown, an associate professor at Macquarie University in Sydney.

It’s easy to assume — particularly when they circle the same decorative castle over and over again as if each pass is an adventure — that their tiny brains are as shallow as the view through their often-translucent skin.

But fish are much deeper than we think, Brown believes.

Described as voluminous, his research delves into fish from every angle — social and biological complexity, cognitive, evolutionary changes, sensory perception, and cerebral function — you name it he has studied it.

Of course we know fish live in groups or “schools,” but there is more to the coexistence than simply swimming in unison. According to Brown’s research, fish actually live in complex social communities in which they keep track of one another, learn from each other and share traditions.

Not only do they recognize one another as individuals, they have social bonds through which they cooperate and even reconcile their differences and disagreements.

They can count and, thanks to excellent long-term memories, they track and retain quantities, otherwise known as “numerosity,” a trait scientists once credited exclusively to human brains.

And those seemingly nonsensical circles seen in tank environments shouldn’t be held against them because apparently they know where they are going — fish use physical cues to navigate, remembering attributes and “landmarks,” a capability humans develop around 6 years old, the research states.

Fish also problem solve by figuring out how use tools to accomplish tasks.

But perhaps most intriguing is the fact that fish can multitask.

Humans have long been thought to hold the corner on the multitasking market, but not so, Brown states.

Like humans, fish can conduct multiple tasks, working toward more than one goal at the same time.

Study of brain lateralization in non-human vertebrates — partitioning in the brain which controls separate functions of the body, or left hemisphere-right hemisphere — has exploded in the scientific community in recent years, revolutionizing our understanding of the animal world and narrowing the gap between how we view their brains versus ours.

Brown is not the first, and because of this research, many have stepped forward to place animal brain function on a par with humans.

What this burgeoning research has revealed is that the ability to maintain parallel priorities — balancing and pursuing at the same time the need to eat, stay safe and advance the species — is shared by many creatures.

While narrowing the gap between human and fish brain function is fascinating and a noble pursuit, narrowing the sympathy gap may be overly ambitious, but that isn’t stopping Brown.

Proof of fish feelings and smarts mean, “We should therefore include fish in our ‘moral circle’ and afford them the protection they deserve,” he said in a press release promoting his research.

A long-standing tradition of backyard and toilet-side fish funerals conducted in homes across the nation notwithstanding, the line for admittance into the “moral circle” is long, but perhaps it has to start somewhere, especially when there are so many fish in the sea.
Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: insearchofponies@gmail.com