Inside Animal Minds: A Review
“Consciousness” is defined in humans as “the subjective or phenomenal experience we have from our surrounding environment, own body, and/or own knowledge.” In other words, consciousness is the ability to have subjective experiences based on sensory inputs and independent thoughts. For example, when the sight of a greyhound makes me think of my own childhood dog, this is an example of consciousness – I am using sensory data combined with my own memories to create an experience. Consciousness in both humans and animals has been studied for centuries, but research on animal consciousness is particularly challenging for a number of reasons, one of which is that they cannot communicate their experiences using verbal language that humans can understand.
This article summarizes the issues facing animal consciousness research as well as the state of such research. It was based on published scientific and philosophical literature, both in books and academic journals. European, American, and Australian academics were a part of the review process, which was commissioned by the European Food and Safety Authority.
From the outset, the authors state that there are three issues facing the study of consciousness in animals, which makes it very different from studying consciousness in humans. First, animals are largely unable to communicate their own experiences in a way that we can understand. We must infer their cognitive status based on their actions. Second, the term “animal” is so broad that consciousness may appear in a variety of forms depending on physiology and environment. For example, “animals” include species as diverse as jellyfish and chimpanzees, and trying to come up with a single term of “consciousness” that will apply to both is daunting. Finally, most studies that have been used to study animal consciousness were not originally conceived with that as their goal.
The authors explain that there are five elements associated with animal consciousness:
- Emotion: Defined as “modulators of our cognitive capacities involving judgment, learning, or memory.” Many animals – even fish – display signs of emotional change similar to our own.
- Metacognition: Defined simply as “thinking about thinking.” Scientists study two types of metacognition in animals: the ability to assess one’s own state of knowledge and the ability to identify one’s lack of knowledge and seek out additional knowledge.
- Processing of past and future: The ability to remember the past and plan for the future. Both of these abilities are widely displayed in the animal kingdom with specific experiments showing their existence in primates, weasels, and corvids (crows and ravens).
- Social behavior: Refers to how animals interact with one another in groups. Social cognition, and specifically the ability to infer what other members of a given group know and feel, as well as how they intend to act, is necessary to build and sustain relationships. This capacity relies on complex cognitive processes that are likely linked to consciousness.
- Human-animal relationships: Refers to the ability of some animals to adjust their behavior when interacting with humans. For example, dogs will act differently towards humans than they do towards other dogs and are capable of recognizing distinct human individuals.
In addition to this outline, the authors look at certain neurobiological structures that are associated with consciousness, like the forebrain in many mammals. This specific structure has not been found in birds and fish, but these species do appear to possess equivalent structures. The authors stress that while we should not see any specific structure as a necessary or sufficient sign of consciousness, neurobiology can be a useful indicator of potential consciousness.
Finally, the authors explain that scientists generally agree that consciousness is a useful tool for animals when adapting to changes in the environment. Adaptation is necessary for the success of most animal species, as an animal that cannot change its behavior is more vulnerable than one that can. Regarding ethics, the authors suggest that evidence of higher-order consciousness in animals should affect our consideration of animals’ personal interests, which is especially relevant for the domesticated animals that we depend on for food, clothing, companionship, and scientific research.