Eric Sorensen continues to impress. His latest piece for Washington State Magazine, “The Animal Mind Reader,” is a terrific profile of Jaak Panksepp, a scientist identified by Sorensen as a pioneer in the new discipline of affective neuroscience. The WSM story details the work he has done and idea he has promoted that animals have consciousness too, just like Homo sapiens sapiens. The goodness starts with the story’s first three paragraphs:
Last July, an international group of scientists with “neuro” in their titles convened in Cambridge, England, to give good weight to a radical idea. The conference participants, including the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, sat through some 15 presentations and closed the day by endorsing 612 precisely struck words that, in effect, said many of our fellow animals, including all mammals and birds, also have consciousness.
It’s an underwhelming notion taken on faith by those who commune with pets or embrace the fight for animal rights. But scientists hold to a tougher standard than the baleful look in a dog’s eyes. The question of animal consciousness has bedeviled them for centuries and drawn speculations from the likes of Charles Darwin and Nobel laureate Francis Crick, the Cambridge conference’s namesake.
Now an accomplished core of scientists cited the next best thing to a smoking gun—”the weight of evidence”—to say, “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” When it comes to the anatomy, chemistry, and physiology of our brains and the way they play into our consciousness, they said, we are not alone.
So much to praise there, especially if you appreciate the craftsmanship of a good sentence. The bit of indirection that substitutes “scientists with ‘neuro’ in their titles” for “neuroscientists” and announces, in Sentence One, that you, the reader, are in the hands of a writer who is dexterous with the language and has attended to each sentence of the story. The “give good weight” homage to John McPhee. The unobtrusive precision of “15 presentations” and “612 precisely struck words,” precision that does not slow the story’s profluence but does signal attention to detail. That lovely phrase “the baleful look in a dog’s eyes.”
Sorensen goes on to establish the scientific context for Panksepp’s work, situating the researcher in his discipline. He briskly gets to the “so what?” question that pertains to his subject:
His work inspires a litany of ramifications beyond the already impressive notion of animal consciousness, which Panksepp calls the “capacity to have experience.” It has philosophical implications, not only for how we should treat animals, but whether we have free will and where we might search for the meaning of life. It suggests that our most basic values are biological in nature. That we’ve been encoded to anticipate the future. That our fundamental consciousness is thought and feeling, heart and head. That we’re innately optimistic. That some of our most vexing psychological problems, like depression, might be addressed through these emotional systems.
Biography follows, tracing Panksepp’s path from war-ravaged Estonia to his remarkable research on animal behavior. Sorensen weaves clear explanations of Panksepp’s science with the narrative of the scientist’s life, a life marked by tragedy—his 16-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver—and personal trials—two bouts with lymphoma.
From first word to last closed quote, “The Animal Mind Reader” is an assured and skillfully wrought piece of factual storytelling. I’m not the only one who thinks so. The curatorial website Longform.org recently featured the piece, a bit of well-earned recognition.