Are Animals Conscious? I Dunno—Are We?

March 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

A study published by University of Lethbridge Department of Psychology professor Jennifer Mather in 2008 proposed, in summary, that “cephalopod molluscs may have a form of primary consciousness”—that they are “heavily dependent on learning in response to both visual and tactile cues,” “may have domain generality and form simple concepts” and seem “aware of their position, both within themselves and in larger space, including having a working memory of foraging areas in the recent past.” A 2013 study by Mather and Michael J. Kuba summarized that the cephalopod brain “does not just have centralization of the molluscan ganglia but also contains lobes with ‘higher order’ functions such as storage of learned information.” The decentralized nervous system, “particularly in the arms of octopuses, results in decision making at many levels”; the cephalopod “is first and foremost a learning animal, using the display system for deception, having spatial memory, personalities, and motor play. They represent an alternative model to the vertebrates for the evolution of complex brains and high intelligence, which has as yet been only partly explored.”

At first glance, the question of animal consciousness struck me as an odd one; assuming they are not lifeless automatons, or robots programmed to perform a certain limited set of functions, how in fact could they not be conscious in some way, shape or form? This depends, of course, on how we define it, but the idea of “consciousness” as it’s normally understood may be a relic of outdated philosophical thinking, and will have to be revised in light of more rigorous scientific research. Katherine Harmon Courage asks an appropriate question in the Scientific American online blog: “should we humans really be surprised that ‘consciousness’ probably does not only exist in us?” The correct question, it seems to me, is not whether other animals are conscious, but rather what types of consciousness they exhibit—and what are the factors that limit the “consciousness” of both humans and other animals, genetic or otherwise. To pretend that humans (Homo sapiens—”wise man”) are the unique repository of this quality, this “privileged state of subjective awareness,” seems more revelatory of the need to set ourselves apart from the rest of nature rather than an objective inquiry into the matter. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, signed in July 2012 [PDF], states that the research on consciousness is “rapidly evolving,” the accumulation of new data requiring “a periodic reevaluation of previously held preconceptions in this field.” It states further that “neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus),” citing evidence that “human and non-human animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks”:

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute of Brain Science, stated in 2012 that “[e]xactly how organized brain matter gives rise to images and sounds, lust and hate, memories, dreams and plans, remains unclear.” I suppose one could carry out the mental experiment of an extra-terrestrial being visiting our fair planet sometime in the near or distant future (assuming we haven’t ruined it by then), and asking the same question about us: “are they conscious?”


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Update (March 11): Related to questions of consciousness, a recent article from New Scientist (reprinted in the Washington Post) addresses the question of whether or not certain invertebrates feel pain in some way comparable to humans, and consequently if they are capable of suffering. Researcher and professor Robert Elwood emphasizes that direct comparisons with humans are not always appropriate; denying that crabs, for instance, feel pain because they don’t have the same biology as us “is like denying they can see because they don’t have a visual cortex.” Again, this type of reasoning would depend on narrowly defining these capacities, such as seeing, as seeing like a human—that is, there would be no other possible way of seeing, “seeing” being a uniquely human property or behavior. The article also makes the distinction between learned behaviors—arising as a result of experiencing pain, remembering it and acting in order to avoid it—and simple reflexes, which may be unconscious and automatic responses to stimuli. Experiments with crustaceans revealed “prolonged and complicated behavior, which clearly involves the central nervous system,” as opposed to insects, suggesting that insects have had no evolutionary need or constraints to experience pain in the same way.

Importantly, the article qualifies suffering as a subjective experience, and therefore “private to each individual, leaving us only with educated guesses” as to how it is actually lived—the implications being that there is ultimately no way of fully understanding how another organism suffers, except by way of observation and experimentation. One difficulty arising from this, it seems to me, is that certain results/behaviors can be wrongly interpreted as “learned,” or conscious, when they are in fact reflexive, and vice versa.

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