Is it the freedom we have to make choices in life that makes living so satisfying?
Amongst my most satisfying moments of 2018 were the days when my house-mates and I would head into the woods pre-breakfast and forage for chanterelles to fry up for the top of our morning toast, or ditching the shower to strip off and run into the sea after a long walk during this summer’s heatwave, or when I pushed myself through yet another comfort zone in my work life into things that scared the shit out of me (the pressure of solo filming trips!), or even when I said goodbye to relationships that were making me unhappy in order to seek ones that meet my emotional needs more fully. Life to me feels like a wonderful playground of trial and error and learning, learning, learning and I love the feeling of my brain stretching and growing with each new experience and encounter.
Are humans the only species that finds satisfaction in navigating through the world?
When I watch animals in the wild I can’t help but feel convinced that they find fulfilment within the act of living too. Crossing over a fast-flowing river to reach a more lush patch of grass on the other side, stretching out lazily under the afternoon mid-summer sun, seeking out the highest point of land for the breeze to come to aid on a midgey day, befriending the herd-mate with a similar streak for mischief and play… Wouldn’t these activities provide a great deal of cognitive stimulation and a certain intrinsic satisfaction? Wouldn’t the challenges of life be shaping and growing these animals brains in such glorious ways?
Now… imagine being born into the same world, yet not being able to choose the ways in which you’d like to interact with all that surrounds you. Imagine your existence being restricted to just the shelter under which you live, with food and drink being brought right to your door at the exact same time every day and play-mates (if any) being chosen for you, not by you. No need to make any effort. Wouldn’t your potential for growth and development be severely retarded? How boring would life be?! What a tragedy to be alive in this world yet never have the opportunity to fully experience it in all its challenging glory.
Domestication often seems like such a tragedy to me. Horses are treated like fragile play-things that couldn’t possibly make decisions for themselves. Yet the same horses that we wrap in cotton wool and worry about when it starts raining are made of the same parts, with the same mental hardware as their wild counterparts. Can you imagine how much our mollycoddling might be restricting their development and potential for an enjoyable life?
I find it oddly intriguing when people exclaim ‘he’s got a mind of his own!’ when discussing their animals. I’m sure I’ve uttered it once or twice in my absent-minded past. And it is quite funny, unless you think about it too much.
I’m no scientist, but the concept of neuroplasticity (as I understand it) excites me so so much. Our adult brains aren’t as rigid as we once believed and the capacity for experience to reprogram them is vast! As fellow mammals, I wonder about our horses capacity for mental growth, if only we could unwrap a little of the cotton wool…
It is fully accepted that there is more to life for humans than an existence between four walls, I wonder when we’ll extend this to the lives of other animals too?