Scientists Recognize that Animals are Conscious Too!

Ian Somerhalder Foundation

By: Christina Evola


Are animals conscious?  Most of us would say certainly yes.  It was not until summer of 2012, however, that animal consciousness was announced as a fact by the world’s greatest scientists.


The question of whether animals are conscious has been considered throughout history.  For example, in the 1500s Michel de Montaigne observed that Thracians would send a fox to charter an icy river.  The fox would place its ear to the ice, checking for sound of the waters current and the Thracians would not venture onto the ice until the fox indicated it was safe by either proceeding forward or retreating.  Why, de Montaigne asked, should humans presume the fox does not have the same thought process regarding the water’s current as a human?1    

Centuries later, de Montaigne’s question was answered.  On July 7, 2012, a prominent group of scientists2  gathered at The University of Cambridge for the First Annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference3  to reassess the concept of “consciousness” in humans and animals, putting forth a “declaration” of animal consciousness by some of the world’s brightest minds.

Philip Low from Stanford University, speaker at the Conference, noted prior to the declaration that the group of scientists had come “to a consensus that now was perhaps the time to make a statement for the public... It might be obvious to everybody in this room that animals have consciousness; it is not obvious to the rest of the world."4  


Isn’t it hard to believe that something so obvious was not widely recognized by scientists sooner?


“Just because bees are small and fuzzy does not mean that they cannot have subjective states” muses Christoff Koch, speaker at the Conference.5   Rather, consciousness and feelings are traits shared by all living creatures, from insects to humans.  Studies show that an octopus can learn from their other octopi friends, birds can memorize and solve problems, and bees can recognize faces and carefully navigate terrain.6


What exactly do scientists mean by “consciousness?”  Koch describes the term as “the ability to feel something, anything -- whether it's the sensation of an azure-blue sky, a tooth ache, being sad, or worrying about the deadline two weeks from now.”7


The scientists at the Crick Memorial Conference presented a variety of research, highlighting the following:8


1. Breakthroughs in the field of consciousness call for “periodic  reevaluation of previously held preconceptions” with respect to human/animal research strategies and justifications; 

2. Stimulation of comparable brain regions in humans and animals demonstrate similar instinctual and emotional responses.  Interestingly, evolutionary characteristics of attentiveness, sleep and decision appear to have arisen as early in the evolutionary chain as insects and octopi;

3. Birds, such as African grey parrots, exhibit strikingly parallel brain structures to humans with respect to emotions.  Moreover, Zebra Finches have shown neural sleep patterns similar to humans while magpies, dolphins, great apes, and elephants are even able to recognize themselves in the mirror like humans do;

4. Pharmacological substances can alter the consciousness of animals and human alike!


These findings support the conclusion that nonhuman animals, including mammals, birds, octopi, and others have the “substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors” and that these substrates “generate consciousness.”


What will this recognition mean for upcoming scientific research?  Will new safeguards be implemented to ensure animal comfort? Mark Bekoff, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, hopes that the declaration and that data on which it relies “will be used to protect animals from being treated abusively and inhumanely” in revised regulations and policies.9


Scientists are also wondering if the new consensus will lead to amendments for laws and regulations such as the U.S. Animal Welfare Act of 1966 that offer little protection to birds and cold-blooded animals.10   Only time will tell, but this new found scientific accord, which is in line beliefs about animals that most of us already hold is certainly a step in the right direction.  

Sources:

 1. Essays of Michel de Montaigne.
 2. Cognitive  neuroscientists,  neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists including Kristoff Kock and Stephen Hawking presented their research and spoke at the conference.  A full list of scientists and convention speakers can be found here: http://fcmconference.org/#program  (last accessed January 16, 2013).
 3. The conference was named after Sir Francis Crick, who, after co-discovering the structure of DNA, set his mind to unraveling the mysteries of consciousness.
 4. Mark Bekoff, Op Ed: Animals are conscious and should be treated as such, http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528836.200-animals-are-conscious.... (last accessed January 16, 2013).
  Koch, Christof, Consciousness is everywhere.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christof-koch/consciousness-is-everywhere_... (last accessed January 16, 2013).
 5. Id.
 6. Id.
 7.  The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch.  The Declaration was publicly  proclaimed in  Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, by Low, Edelman and Koch.  The full text of the Declaration can be found here: http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf.
 8. Mark Bekoff, Op Wd Animals are conscious and should be treated as such http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528836.200-animals-are-conscious...
9.  Koch, Consciousness is everywhere.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christof-koch/consciousness-is-everywhere_... (last accessed January 16, 2013).