You're probably familiar with Koko, the famous gorilla who knows sign language.

Whether it's her recent comments about climate change or the various times she's adopted kittens to raise as her own, Koko is one impressive ape — and a humbling example of just how humanlike the animal kingdom can be.

(She also has her fair share of vocal detractors, just like her human celebrity counterparts. Because apparently some people aren't impressed by a gorilla who can communicate with humans.)


Not actually Koko, but a family of western lowland gorillas nonetheless. Photo by Pascal Walschots/Flickr.

Does Koko understand the detailed and complex scientific concepts behind climate change? Probably not. Was her response in a recent video on the topic encouraged, edited, and maybe even scripted? Sure.

But who cares? Koko knows more than 1,000 words in American Sign Language! She has pets that she cares for! And, oh yeah, she's completely changed the way we think about what's possible in terms of animal intelligence.

And Koko isn't the only animal to show signs of self-awareness.

Obviously we can't look into a living brain to decide if it has a higher consciousness. But we can observe from the outside whether an organism can roughly acknowledge, "Oh, maybe that other gorilla wanted that banana 'cause he was hungry, and now he's sad, and I kind of understand what that would be like."

This is generally referred to as "Theory of Mind" — the ability to recognize the self and empathize with others. When we recognize this trait in animals like Koko, it means we have some kind of demonstrative evidence these animals see themselves in others' shoes — that they can project and understand the beliefs and desires of others.

Again, just because an animal possesses Theory of Mind doesn't mean their thought processes are as highfalutin as us self-important human-types. But that's OK; there's still a lot that they can teach us — about ourselves and our brains and the world around us.

Here are five more species that act surprisingly human.

1. Chimpanzees

Photo by Matt King/Stringer/Getty Images.

Apes in general are closely related to humans on the evolutionary ladder, but gorillas like Koko aren't the only intelligent ones. Chimpanzees tend to be the go-to subjects for studying primate consciousness and with some pretty remarkable results.

One chimp, Washoe, learned more than 350 words of American Sign Language and even taught some to her son — without any human intervention.

There was also Lucy, who was raised from birth by a human family and became well-known for her proclivity toward gin and tonics and her clever use of household appliances to aid in her — ahem — extracurricular enjoyment of Playgirl magazine. (Which sounds kind of funny until you realize what it says about psychological abuse and captivity.)

2. Octopuses

The octopuses are coming for your World Cup. Photo by Patrik Stollarz/Getty Images.

Also known plurally as "octopode" and "octopii," octopuses haven't technically been observed to demonstrate "consciousness" or self-awareness in the ways that we lowly humans usually define them. (This normally involves plopping an animal in front of a mirror to see if it recognizes its own reflection, but that's kinda hard to do with an underwater creature that doesn't see the same way we do.)

But octopuses have been known to learn through observation and use their suckers to unscrew jar lids from the inside and can solve a Rubik's Cube faster than you, so we probably just don't have the tools to comprehend their vastly superior intelligence, and we should really just bow down to our tentacled overlords and pray that they have mercy when they finally rise from the depths to destroy us.

Also they're adorable (scientifically speaking).

3. Elephants

Although they have yet to master the art of ear-powered flight (Disney lied to us!), elephants do have the biggest brains on the planet, which is part of why they have such remarkable memories and even have the ability to distinguish between human genders and ethnicities.

On top of that, elephants have also shown a surprising knack for artistic prowess by painting with their trunks — and brushes aren't the only tools they can use, either. Granted, there has been some moral debate about the treatment of these elephant painters in captivity. But if it makes you feel any better, they've also been known to intentionally screw with humans who are trying to test their intelligence, and I always appreciate an animal that can stick it to the man.

4. Bottlenose dolphins

Fun fact: Dolphins actually have more complex brains than humans.

Perhaps this higher cognitive ability is why so many humans seek their help in dolphin-assisted therapy as well as dolphin-assisted childbirth. Sure, there's no real proof for the effectiveness of either practice — but hey, if that's your thing, go for it.

Like humans, dolphins are one of the only animal species that's known to have sex for pleasure. Well, probably; there's some question about what "sex for pleasure" entails exactly, and I already made the mistake of googling "dolphin sex" once today.

Dolphins, too, have been observed to trick their own human trainers and actually have their own complete translatable language, even if we can't whistle quite they do.

(They also have a legal right to privacy in the state of New Jersey, though I'm not sure if that says more about dolphins or New Jersey.)

5. Crows

Don't be fooled by their diminutive size: The brains of crows (and other birds in the corvid family) are proportional in size to those of primates. This means they're capable of complex reasoning — to the point that some researchers believe them to be as clever as the average 7-year-old human.

This could explain why crows tend to make friends with children in exchange for gifts. Unfortunately, there is no kindergarten system for corvids (that we know of), and thus, no one to teach the clever birds that stealing from other birds and hiding your own stashes of food so that others won't find it (suggesting that they understand the desires of others) is not the best moral practice.

Then again, a plurality of crows is called a "murder," which is insidious enough without them pulling the elaborate cons of human children. Did I mention they know how to create and use their own tools?

Take my advice: Don't mess with a murder.

All of these animals are capable of higher consciousness, just like us.

It's easy to project human feelings onto our pets. After all, most animals do experience basic evolutionary emotions like hunger, fear, and pain, so it's not that big of a step to imagine them understanding individual desires and complex issues.

But the animals above go much, much farther than that. And while it might seem cute and cuddly to think of other critters acting like we do, we can also learn a lot about ourselves by studying the animals who are close to catching up. 

Except for octopuses, I mean. When it comes to them, all that we can really do is wait until they conquer Earth and hope we live to tell the tale.  ¯\\_(ツ)_/¯

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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