A Comprehensive Introduction to a Psychological View of Therianthropy by Liesk

  • By: Liesk
  • Written: 2007

(Disclaimer: This essay is not intended to represent the views of the entire therianthropic community. I am writing this to explain a very specific view of therianthropy, one that is psychological in nature. While a large amount of this information can be applied across the board, it should not be taken as an absolute reference on how every therian views their therianthropy. In addition, we should do well to remember that the cause of a thing is not the same as the thing itself. Even given a possible explanation and source for therianthropic experiences, neither the explanation nor the source is the actual experience.)

Consider your brain. The overwhelming likelihood is that you have a human brain, with two hemispheres, divided portions, and all the other notable qualities of a brain. At a glance, it would seem just like any other brain out there.

Yet if you are an animal-person, a therianthrope, then chances are good that it is very different from most people’s brains. In fact, whether you are a therianthrope or not, your brain must in many ways vary from those brains that it seems just like. Certainly it is a mysterious organ, and we don’t yet know all of its intricate workings. At the same time, modern neuroscience has revealed a wealth of possibilities about the brain – and information about atypical ones.

There are many ways that a person could have atypical neurobiology – indeed, the boundaries of “normal” are very narrow, and one might wonder if anyone at all could claim to fit it. While I will explore the connections that may exist between them, I will be focusing on the therianthropic brain. Remember, though, that as formal study has not been performed on those who claim to be therians, this must all be understood to be hypothetical.

To begin with, most any neurological model holds basis on the physical nature of the mind. And if therianthropy has such a neurological explanation, then one could certainly say that therianthropy isknowable, an antithesis to the common view that therianthropy is too personal to be understood in such a way.

Not so fast. There are two issues with this idea: first, that the definition of therianthropy includes personal and sometimes spiritual models, and so one cannot hope to ultimately give therianthropy “knowability” through a neurological foundation. The definition is not so malleable to be changed by understood causes. More importantly, therianthropy has never been unknowable to begin with.

The idea that therianthropy is so mysterious and personal that it can never be proven, never be stated in absolute, is one of the first mistakes that those new to the idea of therianthropy make – and often, those who aren’t new to it make it as well. While I will be exploring the likely mechanics, it is not my intent to impose knowledge that is already there.

The fact is that therians know they’re animals. They know they’re animals because they are animals, and if they didn’t know they were animals then they wouldn’t be animals. Maybe they don’t know it on the surface – oftentimes they don’t.

But their brains know. A therian ultimately identifies as an animal. They identify so because their minds interpret their existence so. And identity implies their existence; as individuals, animal-people, consciousness, words, non-words, flesh, spirit: they are animals.

That’s all therianthropy is. Identity. And that’s not what it is at all: it’s smells and tastes and fur and noises and thoughts and mindstuff that doesn’t match humanstuff. But it ends up as identity, because it’s why the brain tells itself that it is an animal and knows this to be true.

Don’t confuse this with blindly accepting whatever proposition someone gives of being an animal: even given this, a person asserting that they are an animal does not make it so. You know what you are, but this is easy to cloud by delusion and refusal to accept what is true. You know what you are, but you don’t always know what you know. As we all know, people have a penchant for lying to themselves even more often than they lie to others. It can take a good long while to discover your own identity, and even longer when you have to deal with stymieing the bias of your own hopes for certain outcomes.

If you’re trying to find out if you’re a therian, then while you should listen to all the advice out there telling you to question yourself – this is integral to finding out what it is that you know and not rushing into things – you should think about the fact that you already know what you are. You’re not giving yourself any new information about yourself; you’re only discovering what is already there and what you’ve always known.

The question is, why are we animals? Why do we have these animal natures, these impulses and desires and, for some, shifts? What is it that is happening in our brains?

It is my belief that the origins of therianthropy, in the overwhelming majority of cases, lies in atypical neurobiology. As with things ranging from autism to synesthesia, from high IQs to developmental disorders – there are certain patterns that suggest that the hardwiring of the brain is fundamentally different.

Quite plainly, it seems to be the case that therians work like animals do. A great number of therians report being visual thinkers, or otherwise thinking mainly in some non-verbal form. And while there doesn’t seem to be a much higher number of therians with other atypical neurological functions such as synesthesia, autism, Asperger’s, etc., than in the general population, many therians display traits that are similar to these, and having a few of these traits is possibly fairly unanimous among therians.

These include the aforementioned sensory thinking, synthesis between so-called “left-brained” and “right-brained” activities, ADD or OCD-like patterns, and so on. Note that not all therians will experience all of these, and it’s certainly possible that someone could be a therian and experience none of these. The majority, however, seem to experience at least one or two from this list, and it would probably be safe to say that almost all therians process information differently from the majority of the population.

In addition to this, individual therians seem to have hardwiring that matches their animal type. How this happens on an individual level is up for debate, although I will be exploring it later on. But what exactly is causing this all?

Certainly, atypical neurobiology is usually something a person has from birth. This lends itself nicely to the concept of “therianthropy is from birth.” On the other hand, it should be obvious that a person won’t be a therian just because their brain works a little bit differently. They – their brains – must first consider themselves to be an animal. When does this arise?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that it normally occurs at least by the time that a sense of identity begins to form. Almost all therianthropes report having felt animal-like their entire lives, tracing back to their early memories. Whatever factors trigger the animal identity to develop, then, must do so by this time.

Our nature as human beings is half-seated in the abstract. We drag what we see in the physical world through the filters of our minds, form patterns, and out come ideas, thoughts, and identity. The ability to do so is given to us by our propensity for consciousness and self-awareness; modern neuroscience tells us that identity is intrinsically linked to consciousness. The development of a personal identity is a result of observation of patterns and the distinctly human ability to interpret the abstract relationship between oneself and one’s environment.

In case you didn’t catch that, I’ll reiterate: this is distinctly human. While it is possible, even plausible, that some species (such as dolphins) are developed and social enough that the evolutionary imperative for identity and awareness is there, the very abstract nature of a human’s identity – especially atypical identity – is something that, to our knowledge, no other species experiences. The irony, of course, is that in being animal we are expressing being human, but there is more to it than just irony. Being human – or, if you prefer, being self-aware – is a sort of key to becoming something other than what your body dictates. This means challenging the notions of what it means to be a member of a particular species. There is, of course, no large dichotomy recognized by modern science between the body and the mind. But a self-aware mind has the possibility to recognize itself as any multitude of things, growing exponentially the more abstractly the person functions. And a spiritual person would be justified in suggesting that human nature is optimal for spiritual growth, assuming that their definition of spirit is something akin to our “identity.”

Human beings evolved in such a manner that they gained self-awareness, as we can clearly see. Because being self-aware is distinctly more advantageous than being unaware, a species gaining it has a get-out-of-jail-free card. A self-aware animal can better respond to its environment, making survival more likely. It is also deeply tied to social function: theoretically, humans may have gained self-awareness through observation of others in their social groups and applying what they observed to their own selves. Anthropomorphism is a result of this, which we can see in the way that early humans were usually animistic. This is referred to along with the “god gene”: humans will even go so far as to anthropomorphize the entire universe, saying that it must have a human-like Creator.

The development of an individual human has a funny way of retelling human history. During the first few years of life, the similarities a child recognizes between their own self and the things in their environment solidify into a very basic identity. The core self.

For a child with atypical neurobiology, their own behaviors may lead to observing different patterns than that which a normal child may see. Because of this, a different sort of basic identity may develop. For therians, this means animal. Which animal, though, is a question that needs to be dealt with. Most therians were unaware of the existence of their theriotypes during those first years of life. So how did they come about identifying as such?

This begins down the well-trodden lane of “why are there so many canines and felines in the therian community?” If one’s theriotype is determined during the timeframe I believe it is, then strong animal influences that may be readily available to a child’s psyche are cats and dogs. Even if the child’s household does not personally own one or the other, the influence of these domestic pets on most children is significant. And for children whose behaviors don’t seem quite like the other humans they see around, recognizing patterns in these animals may be enough to solidify their identity.

Of course, most therians feel that they are a wilder cousin of our domestic friends. If we assume that at least some of these individuals are correct in their assessment of their theriotypes, and recognize that while some may also have been influenced by actual wolves and the like, the majority have not, then we are forced to further recognize that the nature of identity is enormously abstract. A child can take with them the feeling that their identity is very akin to a cat or a dog, but leave room for the development of other factors of their behaviors and self to become an unlabelled identity – only to be recognized as a match for another species later on.

This leads us to therians whose animal types are not similar to animals that directly impacted their lives. A child’s species identity could be suspended so far as a label is concerned – if they recognize that human isn’t all there is to them, but do not see what it might be, then the result may be that their species identity is temporarily nothing but a collection of traits. If they later find a species that is an undisputed match for those traits, then they may recognize it as being their inner species – though this might never happen. Thus, you have young children who have never seen a deer growing up to be stags, and kids who eventually understand that their natures match more an inner concept of dragon than of any living species. And so on.

From there, the reinforcement of this identity and relevant behaviors and the specifics of the child’s neurobiological structures will serve to create a way in which the individual relates itself to its animal type. The degree to which their mind separates higher-order and lower-order thoughts may have an impact on how they experience their therianthropy, as might their relationship to being human.

As the therianthropic community is well familiar with, different therians experience different “flavors” of therianthropy. This, much to some dismay, is categorized by the degree to which the animal side and the human side are polarized, and the subsequent possibility for a mental shift.

A therian with more extreme polarization (referred to as a dichotomistic therian) has developed a brain structure where there are two (or more, in the case of multiple theriotypes) essentially complete and independently functioning operating systems. The therian has entirely separated the human behaviors from the animal ones, and their brains distinctly classify certain behaviors as belonging to the human set and certain ones as belonging to the animal set(s). The degree to which they overlap is only so far as to allow for switching over from one mindset to another.

While the mindsets are separate, unlike an individual with MPD/DID, the therian does not have separate identities for the additional mindsets. Both human and animal remain an integral part of their inner identity, no matter which mindset they are in. (Someone with more than one relevant identity may instead be a ‘Multiple’, or, as noted, someone with MPD/DID.)

A therian who has separate mindsets that overlap, but are not integrated, has developed similarly, with the exception of that the mindsets do not function independently: they are instead coordinated. Their minds still segregate human behaviors with a human mindset and animal behaviors with an animal mindset, but they run side-by-side, with the capability to easily slip into focusing more one or the other, much as you can have multiple programs open on a computer with only one window active. For some, one program can also shut off to allow the other to run in full.

If a therian has an integrated mindset between human and animal, but the integration is not full, then while their brains will not segregate behaviors into distinct mindsets, behaviors within the single mindset will be interpreted as being more human, more animal, or some degree of both. They may be clustered accordingly by association, and so the triggering of a behavior considered human or considered animal may result in behaviors clustered with the triggered one, resulting in the possibility of feeling a bit more human or a bit more animal at any given time. The links between the clusters are strong, so a human behavior that is linked to an animal cluster might just as well set off the processes needed to feel animal-swayed, and there may even be cross-categorized processes within a single cluster. The result is some degree of vacillation between human and animal, but clearly the specifics of this are dependent upon the individual.

If the integration is full, then no matter how the clusters are organized, every process will be categorized under “human-animal,” just like in a non-therianthropic brain it is all categorized under “human.” The brain interprets every behavior as originating from the nature of the overall human-animal, and never from one individually.

(I do not claim that these are the only types out there, as I imagine there are many people who don’t quite fit into any of these categories. These are simply what seem to be the most common types, and my explanations of what may be going on. Therianthropy, as always, is not dependent on the “flavor” of your experience.)

While it would be interesting to consider why a particular type develops, I can only offer explanations that are yet more tentative. I believe that the person’s own considerations of what it means to be human and what it means to be animal will have an impact, but I couldn’t say how much of an impact it would be, compared to other factors such as their brain chemistry and their environment. Most likely, different amounts of each contribute to it depending on the person. It seems to be the case, for example, that like with MPD/DID, a dichotomy between mindsets is more likely to occur in individuals whose lives have been filled with stress, which would imply that for these individuals, the environment had a significant impact. This does not, of course, mean that contherians are the most well-adjusted and that dichotomistic therians are the least, or that a dichotomy is always the result of stress. Most folk function just fine with the way their animal nature corresponds to their human nature.

The mental experience of being human or animal is, of course, not the end of the “shifting” book. Many therians also experience something similar to the phantom limbs of amputees, and it is appropriately dubbed “phantom shifting” (though “phantom limbs” is also in use, particularly for individuals who always have them, rather than who shift into having them). Some aspects of this phenomena may very well remain mysterious or require other explanations, but it is my belief that most phantom experiences are the result of the brain “mapping out” how it feels the body should be, in accordance with what body dysphoria results from the atypical species identity.

It has been found by some studies that the brain has a way of creating a sort of 3D imagery of the body and its motions, and that this system is not foolproof. Conscious and semi-conscious manipulation of it – which I refer to as “mapping” – can result in significant effects. In one study, individuals who mapped out the motions of performing a certain action, such as dancing or shooting a basketball, did worse than those who actually practiced, but much better than those who did nothing at all. This system is also fooled naturally – without conscious interference – such as with referred pain.

Note that when I say “fooled” I do not mean to imply that the experience of phantom limbs are in any way invalid. They are different from what the brain would normally track, but this does not make them false or superficial. They’re there because you (your brain, your semi-conscious mind) felt they were important, and so most likely they are.

It is not surprising, then, that many therians might themselves map the body of their animal superimposed over their human limbs. The result is a model within the brain that runs along with the model relevant to the human body. In some individuals, the phantom model may at times override the human model, and vice versa. In others, the two may always run side-by-side, and still in others there may be different scenarios that develop.

The interesting part is that this is not restricted to one’s theriotype.

Cameo-shifting. It’s an important thing for any prospective therian to know about, so they can understand that their shifts might not be into their actual animal. Remember that both therians and non-therians can experience cameo-shifts. I believe that both mental and phantom cameo-shifts are the result of mapping.

For phantom cameo-shifts, the individual may map out the body structure of the thing they are shifting into. Usually, this is a temporary model, unlike the therianthropic one, which is most often permanent. (Of course, someone could also permanently map something not relevant to their theriotype – a likely contender for why we see so many people with phantom wings whose theriotypes don’t have wings in real life to begin with.)

In a mental cameo-shift, what is explored is not the body structure, but the mental structure. The behaviors, instincts, etc., temporarily become a part of the person’s functioning psyche.

A strong shift of this sort is normally self-induced, but simply thinking about an animal can cause mild shifting. If the individual’s mind is always seeking to make connections, to understand from the animal’s point of view, then the individual is likely to experience many cameo-shifts. It is not a sign of instability, but rather of wishing to further explore one’s world.

Some people may wish to often revisit one particular animal in their explorations. This is often a totem, or in some way holds meaning, though it may simply be an animal that an individual enjoys shifting into.

The experience of discovering who and what you are can be a very rewarding one, no matter whether you’re therian or not. The important thing is that you come to have a deeper, more complete relationship with yourself… and it’s not whether or not this is the result of your brain or your soul or whatever you believe in! While it has been interesting and important to my path that I consider the neurological possibilities behind therianthropy, any such explanation will never take the place of the actual experience of being an animal-person. There will never be any diagnostic test that takes the place of simply looking inside yourself and seeing what you have to offer.