Prof. Joseph Levine

Senior Psychiatrist




Conversation 42: Hypotheses about the directorate of internalized characters in animals

By Prof. Levine & Dr. Salganik


Let us recall first that in the model we propose for the "self", one must first differentiate between the primary self, which is actually the basic biological core consisting of a number of innate structures and which is subject to development during life. and the "social self" [consisting of "secondary selves"], which is a structure that develops during a person's exposure to social influence, and consists of internalizations of figures significant to a person, originating either from external groups or from imaginary groups (related, for example, in the form of a story, from a myth, from a movie, etc.) that were having a considerable effect on the person). The "secondary selves" included in the "social self" include 1] the variety of representations of the "Me" that originate from attitudes and feelings towards the self and its representations in different periods of life 2] the representations of internalized figures that often originate from significant figures that the person is exposed to during his life but as mentioned may also be imaginary characters represented in books, films, etc. that have had a considerable influence on man. 3] internalized representations of the "subculture" [subculture refers to social influences in the milieu [environment] in which the person lives and are not necessarily related to a specific person].


Board of Directors: Photographed in courtesy of Shimshony Sarit

We call the social self metaphorically the "directory of characters" or more specifically the "directory of internalized characters." We note that, as we mentioned before, in this board there is usually a hierarchy in which there are more influential and dominant figures that we metaphorically called "Dictator Self or Selves) or the internalized dictators" and these set the tone and even impose censorship on content, attitudes and behaviors that cannot be contained in the board of figures. We note that the person as a whole is not aware of the influence of the board of characters and recognizes the influence as coming from from himself and his own will and positions.

We will also note that as a rule the board of characters is very dynamic and there are constant struggles and power relations between the introverted characters that make it up over the positions that will be expressed when the internal dictator or dictators dictate the tone. Finally, we assume the existence of another internalized group that we will call the enemy group, the individuals represented in it are seen as enemies and the internal dictator imposes censorship on their inclusion in the board of directors.

The question arises as to whether in certain animals there is a minimal, partial, and perhaps more than that representation of such an internalized board of directors of members of their species and what are its characteristics?

We note here that while the possibility of animals’ internalizing figures of other animals cannot be completely ruled out, it is important to approach this concept with caution and avoid overly human interpretations. Many would suggest that the focus should be on understanding their unique cognitive abilities and social interactions without imposing our human emotional framework on them. For by doing so perhaps a deeper appreciation of the extraordinary feeling and complexity of the animal world can be gained.

However, we will still try to speculate about the board's representations in animals. To this purpose, we will separately discuss a number of animal behaviors and try to think about their internal representations and the possible nature of their "directorate" and again according to the caveat stated above it is said that we are presenting hypotheses that can be criticized as speculative at this stage of animal research.

Below are the types of behaviors and our hypothesis regarding the representation of the board in this group:

A] Animals that show a dichotomous emotion such as anger versus fear, but not more complex emotions and do not demonstrate the behaviors below. It is possible that the existence of a board of directors cannot be assumed here unless there are additional behaviors such as those listed below. A very preliminary representation to the enemy is still possible.

B] Social animals living in a group. Here, in the absence of the behaviors listed below, we will assume one generic general representation for the members of the group and possibly one generic general representation for the enemy in a way that it is not a member of the group, perhaps in the group of enemies.

We will note as a general rule that the representation of the enemies in different ways will also appear in the behaviors below, but for the purpose of focusing on the board of directors, we will skip this representation from here on in the current article.

C] Animals that show the ability to identify items in a group based on smell, sight, motion detection, facial recognition and more. Here we assume a number of representations for the members of the group on the board of directors.

D] Animals living in hierarchical societies. With the existence of such behavior we will again assume a representation of several figures in the board and a representation of an internal dictator for the leader of the group, for example the alpha male.

E] Animals that show complex emotions including affection, compassion, jealousy and more. Here we assume a more complex representation for the characters in the board and if they live in a hierarchical society, even a representation for an internal dictator for the leader of the group.

F] Animals that show the ability to mourn the death of a member of their species. Here, too, we will assume a more complex representation for the figures on the board of directors, especially for the relatives, and if they live in a hierarchical society, even a representation for an internal dictator for the group leader.

G] Animals that show the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. Here are added to the board of directors the representations of the self and if they live in a hierarchical group a representation of an internal dictator for the group leader could be also assumed as one of their characteristic.

Granted, attributing human-like emotions and characteristics to animals can be tricky. They may experience similar conditions but their expression and underlying mechanisms may be different. Their reactions may be more instinctive and related to immediate survival needs, and for example not to complex emotional processing and in general it can be argued that the idea of an “internal board of directors” regarding animals is too anthropomorphic.

And yet the idea of having an internalized board of characters at different levels of evolutionary development can be of interest and a subject for research. In our opinion, it is a fascinating question to examine whether animals living in groups can internalize figures of other animals within the same group. While we can't say for sure yes or no, there is some evidence to suggest that some animals have the capacity for such an internal representation, though presumably in different ways than we do.

Supporting evidence:

Social Cognition: Many animals, especially primates, exhibit remarkable social intelligence. They recognize individual group members, form complex relationships, and even engage in sophisticated forms of cooperation. This suggests that they have some internal representation of others, possibly including emotional states and intentions.

Memory and communication: Animals such as elephants and dolphins exhibit impressive long-term memory and remember members of their group and others they have not met for years. In addition, complex communication systems, in some animals, display the ability to share information about others within the group.

Social Hierarchies: Many groups of animals have established social structures with dominant individuals or groups. Below are 3 examples of social structures and influential figures in different species: Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): the dominant influential figure: alpha male or dominant female. Influence: The alpha individual often leads the group, influencing social dynamics and decision-making.

Elephants (Loxodonta africana): the dominant influencing figure: the old mother. Influence: The mother, usually the oldest and most experienced female, directs herd movements and decision-making.

Wolves (Canis lupus): the dominant influencing character: alpha wolf. Influence: The alpha wolf plays a central role in the pack's hierarchy, influencing group activities and coordination.

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While the hierarchical group may resemble a "board of directors," it is likely driven by factors such as group size, power, and access to resources, rather than a complex internal board of directors. It is even possible to assume that animals internalize dominant members with a combination of respect and even fear [however, it is possible that these are not actually complex emotions such as "respect" or "fear" in the human sense and instead rely on instinctive reactions and learned associations]. The body language, scent marks, and vocalizations of certain animals may signal authority, causing other animals to vividly remember them and adjust their behavior accordingly. Thus, animals lower in the hierarchy may internalize higher-ranking ones while focusing on avoiding conflicts and carefully navigating social interactions. They may pay close attention to cues from dominant members and adjust their movements or voices to appease them. We will also note that certain animals live in close-knit pairs or family groups and it is possible that these may experience a more complex internalization, and recognize not only dominance but also emotional situations and needs.

They may cooperate in hunting, raising young, or defending a territory, leading to deeper understanding and allowing for slightly more complex internal representations. In addition animals may form temporary alliances for mutual benefit, such as hunting large prey. The internalization of each other in such situations may be more specific and focused on the task at hand, and less concerned with the overall dominance dynamic. We will also add that hierarchies are not always static. Younger animals challenge the older ones, and individuals can be promoted or demoted. This means that their internalization of each other may change over time, adapting to the changing social landscape.

Communication systems: Each species has its own complex communication system, which uses sounds, body language, smells and even touch to convey information and feelings. Understanding these systems can offer insights into how animals perceive and communicate with each other.

Cooperative Behaviors: Many animals engage in unusual forms of cooperation, hunting together, raising communal offspring, or defending their territory. Studying these behaviors can reveal sophisticated social interactions represented in an internal board unique to animals without imputing internal board structures to humans.

Empathy and Theory of Mind:

Some research suggests that certain animals, such as dogs and primates, may exhibit basic forms of empathy in response to the distress of others. This can indicate an understanding of the emotional state of others, a crucial step towards internalizing their character. There are also types of animals that demonstrate mourning behaviors for the death of an animal close to them such as elephants. Thus elephants are known for their strong social bonds, long-term memories and mourning rituals. They have been observed to exhibit behaviors such as tending to injured or dead group members, suggesting a level of empathy and grief. The great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans) also share a close evolutionary relationship with humans and display a wide variety of behaviors indicative of complex emotions.

They show joy, sadness, empathy, and even engage in comforting behaviors to comfort members of the group in distress and perhaps their inner board is richer than that of inferior animals. Even domestic dogs for example, having evolved together with humans, are known for their ability to form strong emotional bonds with their human caretakers. They show a variety of emotions such as joy, fear and attachment, and can show empathy towards humans and other dogs.

Self-recognition ability: This ability has been observed in several types of animals such as bonobos, orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, elephants, European puffins and pigeons. [We note that the appearance test in animals allows us to speculate whether an animal has the ability to recognize itself. In this test an animal is first put to sleep and then it is marked or painted in an area of its body that it cannot see. Once the animal has recovered from anesthesia, a mirror is placed next to the animal and if the animal touches or recognizes the mark, it is concluded that it can recognize itself in the mirror]. Recognizing their individuality may help animals perceive others as independent beings with unique needs and perspectives. This can pave the way for understanding and even empathy, leading to more complex social interactions and cooperation within the group.

Self-awareness can also fuel social comparison. Animals may internalize others based on perceived similarity or difference to themselves, influencing competition for resources or mates. They may prioritize interactions with those they identify with and avoid conflicts with individuals perceived as different. Self-reflection can play a role in establishing and maintaining social hierarchies. Dominant animals may internalize their power and superiority, while those lower in the pecking order may adjust their behavior according to their self-concept and perceived differences from the leaders. Self-recognition is apparently dynamic, evolving with experiences and changes in the animal's social environment. The internalization of other group members may adapt to these changes, leading to the ever-evolving perception of the social landscape.

We note that the effect of self-recognition on internalization may vary greatly between different species. Animals with more complex social structures and cognitive abilities may show more pronounced effects compared to solitary creatures. In addition, the attribution of human-like self-awareness to animals remains somewhat speculative, and we must focus on their unique forms of self-perception rather than directly mapping our own to them. It is likely that animals endowed with self-awareness will have a more developed executive board than those without this ability and yet apparently differ from one another. in humans.

So while the exact nature of how animals internalize the characters of other animals remains a mystery, the evidence may indicate that they have some capacity for such representation. It is essential to approach this question with scientific rigor and avoid anthropomorphism. By focusing on their unique cognitive abilities and social interactions, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the extraordinary complexity of the animal world. We will also add that the way an animal refers to another animal may depend on the context. A dominant animal may be perceived differently during feeding time than during a territorial dispute. It is possible that their internal representations are flexible and adaptable to different situations.

We also note that while animals undoubtedly have some internal representation of other group members, the level of detail and complexity likely varies between different species and depends on factors such as brain size and social behavior. It may be more akin to the recognition and memory of traits than to the construction of complex personalities and emotional models. Also, their internal representations may serve mainly practical purposes such as identifying potential threats, partners or allies instead of focusing on nuanced emotional states and as mentioned it is important to avoid projecting human emotional complexity on their internalization. In addition animals rely heavily on non-verbal communication through sounds, body language and scent marking. Their internal representations of others may incorporate these cues, allowing them to predict behavior and respond accordingly.

In general, it seems that compared to humans with complex verbal communication, the information available to animals through non-verbal cues is likely limited. Therefore their internal representations may be less detailed and less nuanced than ours. In addition, animals may be motivated by a variety of internal pressures beyond complex emotions, including hunger, fear, curiosity, and reproductive drives. These drives can shape their internal representations of others, focusing on potential threats, mates, or food sources. We will also note that just like humans, individual animals apparently differ in their internal state and social reactions. Some may be more prone to certain emotional influences, while others may rely primarily on instinctive responses.

That's it for now,


Dr. Igor Salganik and Prof. Joseph Levine

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