Tool Use and Mental Well-Being

Tool Use and Mental Well-Being

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,1 playing sports,2 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.

  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,
  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.