If you ever watched Tim Allen on Tool Time, the handyman show within the television show Home Improvement, you saw a man who always expressed joy in using some tool or set of tools to fix or solve a problem. Allen (as Tim “The Toolman” Taylor) portrayed what is inherent in us all. All human beings find satisfaction and fulfillment when we successfully use a tool—or better yet, several tools—to fix or solve something that has stumped or vexed us. Research affirms that this fulfillment in humans and some animals appears to result from a Creator’s endowment.

For humans, tools can be tangible, like screwdrivers and crowbars, or abstract, like mathematical equations or computer software. People who use tools and are consistently successful in their tool use tend to be happier and more optimistic than people who are not.

Successful tool use ranks as just one example of how performing certain complex behaviors improves the mental state of humans. (Others that have been scientifically tested and affirmed include altruistic giving,playing sports,and working to achieve concrete goals.3) Interestingly, animals have been shown to benefit from tool use as well.

Environmental Effects on the Mental States of Birds and Mammals
Many experiments have demonstrated that for birds and mammals environmental enrichment generates optimistic responses whereas environmental deprivation brings on pessimistic responses. Experiments performed on rats, pigs, and starlings establish that when these animals are housed with environmental enrichment they show strong tendencies toward optimistic behavior, but when housed with environmental deprivation they show strong tendencies toward pessimistic behavior.4

Behavioral Effects on Tool-Using Crows
A few weeks ago researchers addressed the question of whether the emotional state of nonhuman animals is positively influenced by willingly initiated complex behaviors like tool use. A team of six zoologists and psychologists led by Harvard University’s Dakota McCoy conducted experiments on fifteen temporarily captured wild New Caledonian crows to test this hypothesis.5 They only experimented on crows that had no previous experience in an aviary or laboratory. Each crow was presented with four different circumstances:

  1. where it could get a food treat out of a box by just using its beak
  2. where it needed to use a tool to get the treat
  3. where little physical effort was needed to get the treat with or without a tool
  4. where much physical effort was needed to get the treat with or without a tool

McCoy’s team noted that the “crows approached the ambiguous stimulus significantly faster in tool use condition trials, where they used a tool to extract a meat block from an apparatus, then in no tool trials.”6 The stimulus was ambiguous in that the crows did not know ahead of time whether there would be a food reward. The team claimed that “measuring approach speed, in this spatial paradigm specifically reveals the ‘wanting’ component, from which we can infer affective ‘liking.'”7 McCoy and her collaborators therefore concluded that “wild New Caledonian crows are optimistic after tool use”8 and that their finding “cannot be explained by the crows needing to put more effort into gaining food.”9

McCoy’s team limited their experiments to wild crows that had no previous laboratory experience or any kind of developed relationship with human beings. As I explain in Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job,10 we see an even more dramatic mental health outcome for crows and ravens that are emotionally bonded to a human being. They especially enjoy showing off their tool-using skills to humans with whom they possess a strong emotional bond.

When my father was a young man, he had a pet raven. (Ravens, both biologically and mentally, are very similar to New Caledonian crows.) He built a large cage for the raven and equipped it with several different locks. The raven would hop into the cage, wait for my father to lock it inside, and then proceed to use different metal slivers that my father placed inside the cage to pick the lock, open the cage door, and hop out. The raven would then wait for my father to change out the lock with a more challenging lock, then hop back inside the cage, wait for my father to lock it in, and proceed to pick the second lock, open the cage door, and hop out.

My father told me that his pet raven was happiest when it was picking his locks but that his raven only wanted to pick the locks if he was close by and observing its lock-picking talents. My father also noted that his raven’s joy was most pronounced when it had successfully picked the most challenging of the locks. Apparently, his raven especially loved to show off its intelligence and skills to the human with whom it had a strong emotional bond.

Theological Implications
These observations seem consistent with conclusions drawn from Genesis 1, which describes God creating three different kinds of life:

  1. purely physical life-forms (such as plants)
  2. nephesh life-forms (life-forms that are not just physical but also soulish in that they possess mind, will, and emotions, the capability of forming emotionally bonded relationships with human beings, and an innate desire to serve and please human beings)
  3. a spiritual species (human beings endowed with the capacity to form a relationship with God and an innate desire to serve and please God)

In other words, the Bible teaches that among all Earth’s life the nephesh species (including crows) are exceptional, and that among all nephesh species human beings are exceptional. The experiments performed by McCoy’s team provide additional scientific evidence for both nephesh exceptionalism and human exceptionalism. Their experiments also yield insights into improving the mental health of both nephesh animals and human beings. Regularly employing all the gifts and talents God has given us really does make a difference in our well-being.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

  1. Robert B. Cialdini and Douglas T. Kenrick, “Altruism as Hedonism: A Social Development Perspective on the Relationship of Negative Mood State and Helping,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34, no. 5 (November 1976): 907–14, doi:10.1037//0022-3514.34.5.907; Stephen G. Post, “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good,” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 12, no. 2 (June 2005): 66–77, https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327558ijbm1202_4.
  2. David Carless and Kitrina Douglas, Sport and Physical Activity for Mental Health (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), doi:10.1002/9781444324945; Nick Caddick and Brett Smith, “The Impact of Sport and Physical Activity on the Well-Being of Combat Veterans: A Systematic Review,” Psychology of Sport and Exercise 15, no. 1 (January 2014): 9–18, doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.09.011.
  3. Kennon M. Sheldon and Andrew J. Elliot, “Goal Striving, Need Satisfaction, and Longitudinal Well-Being: The Self-Concordance Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, no. 3 (March 1999): 482–97, doi:10.1037/0022-3514.76.3.482.
  4. Nichola M. Bridges et al., “Environmental Enrichment Induces Optimistic Cognitive Bias in Rats,” Animal Behaviour 81, no. 1 (January 2011): 169–75, doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.09.030; Stephanie M. Matheson, Lucy Asher, and Melissa Bateson, “Larger Enriched Cages Are Associated with ‘Optimistic’ Response Biases in Captive European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris),” Applied Animal Behavior Science 109, nos. 2–4 (February 2008): 374–83, doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2007.03.007; Catherine Douglas et al., “Environmental Enrichment Induces Optimistic Cognitive Biases in Pigs,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 139, nos. 1–2 (June 2012): 65–73, doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2012.02.018.
  5. Dakota E. McCoy et al., “New Caledonian Crows Behave Optimistically after Using Tools,” Current Biology 29, no. 16 (August 19, 2019): 1–6, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.06.080.
  6. McCoy et al., “New Caledonian Crows,” 3.
  7. McCoy et al., 3.
  8. McCoy et al., 1.
  9. McCoy et al., 1.
  10. Hugh Ross, Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 153.


About The Author

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. I also am eager to equip Christians to engage, rather than withdraw from or attack, educated non-Christians. One of the approaches I’ve developed, with the help of my RTB colleagues, is a biblical creation model that is testable, falsifiable, and predictive. I enjoy constructively integrating all 66 books of the Bible with all the science disciplines as a way to discover and apply deeper truths. 1 Peter 3:15–16 sets my ministry goal, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience." Hugh Ross launched his career at age seven when he went to the library to find out why stars are hot. Physics and astronomy captured his curiosity and never let go. At age seventeen he became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver's Royal Astronomical Society. With the help of a provincial scholarship and a National Research Council (NRC) of Canada fellowship, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics (University of British Columbia) and graduate degrees in astronomy (University of Toronto). The NRC also sent him to the United States for postdoctoral studies. At Caltech he researched quasi-stellar objects, or "quasars," some of the most distant and ancient objects in the universe. Not all of Hugh's discoveries involved astrophysics. Prompted by curiosity, he studied the world’s religions and "holy books" and found only one book that proved scientifically and historically accurate: the Bible. Hugh started at religious "ground zero" and through scientific and historical reality-testing became convinced that the Bible is truly the Word of God! When he went on to describe for others his journey to faith in Jesus Christ, he was surprised to discover how many people believed or disbelieved without checking the evidence. Hugh's unshakable confidence that God's revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict became his unique message. Wholeheartedly encouraged by family and friends, communicating that message as broadly and clearly as possible became his mission. Thus, in 1986, he founded science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB). He and his colleagues at RTB keep tabs on the frontiers of research to share with scientists and nonscientists alike the thrilling news of what's being discovered and how it connects with biblical theology. In this realm, he has written many books, including: The Fingerprint of God, The Creator and the Cosmos, Beyond the Cosmos, A Matter of Days, Creation as Science, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, and More Than a Theory. Between writing books and articles, recording podcasts, and taking interviews, Hugh travels the world challenging students and faculty, churches and professional groups, to consider what they believe and why. He presents a persuasive case for Christianity without applying pressure. Because he treats people's questions and comments with respect, he is in great demand as a speaker and as a talk-radio and television guest. Having grown up amid the splendor of Canada's mountains, wildlife, and waterways, Hugh loves the outdoors. Hiking, trail running, and photography are among his favorite recreational pursuits - in addition to stargazing. Hugh lives in Southern California with his wife, Kathy, and two sons.

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