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Why do people think?

This is a really interesting question, and it is important to think about this in the sense of survival.

image of a grey squirrel holding it's head in one of it's paws. There is a 'thinking' bubble coming from the squirrel with a question mark inside.

21 April 2021

Animals, in general, need to engage in a variety of different behaviours in order to survive. Think of a squirrel. A squirrel needs to look for food sources over the Spring and Summer time in order to survive. As Autumn and Winter approach, these animals will store excess food across several different locations, and return to them months later because food is now scarce. These little rodents accurately remember the location of their food supplies, and they do so because they remember particular smells, visual landmarks, and other information from their surroundings (check the link below for more information on this). It is possible that as they remember these locations, they build a mental representation of their surroundings, and they use that mental representation to get to their goal (food). 

We humans also do this! You can probably imagine the steps, distance, sounds, or locations you need to go through to get to a food source from wherever you are reading this (try it now). One of the things that distinguishes you from a squirrel, is that you are aware that you are doing this type of ‘route planning’. And this is what we call consciousness, and as far as we are aware, squirrels are not conscious animals. Consciousness allows you to be aware of your thoughts and desires, and allows you to examine your thoughts and actions. But thinking is not necessarily a conscious process. Sometimes you may think about things that you are not even aware of! 

The ‘thinking process’ is still not something that is very well defined. Personally, I think that if an animal can perform a complex task (like finding various food stocks stored months ago), it can probably perform some form of mental operation similar to what we call ‘thinking’. And because thinking allows animals to survive by solving problems that they encounter in the world, this trait can be found in various different animal species, including us humans. 

Thousands of years ago, humans used these mental skills to find and develop better ways to hunt, and to remember good sources of food and water. Over time, we applied these skills to solve other problems, like building cities, agriculture, healthcare, and others. But thinking is not something that only humans do. And I believe that thinking is essential for animals to survive. I hope this answers your question, and if you now have more questions, feel free to contact me again. 

Follow the link below to find out more about how squirrels remember where they buried their nuts?