Of conscious thought and self-awareness

Of conscious thought and self-awareness


While animals exhibit perceptual consciousness, which pertains to the senses, whether they have reflective consciousness or not is still doubtful, writes Bharathi Prabhu

Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines consciousness as “the quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself”.

While most of us know what it is to be conscious (and some, what it is to be unconscious!), various facets of this phenomenon continue to intrigue scientists. Chief among them is the topic of animal consciousness.

The philosopher Descartes’ contention that animals are automata has lost ground over the years. Scientists studying animals in their natural surroundings and in laboratories have observed several instances of intelligent behaviour in them. Chimpanzees fashion tools, elephants mourn their dead ones, birds learn to count. The examples can go on. But are these actions accompanied by conscious thought?

Most people will agree that consciousness resides in the brain. Since non human animals also possess brains, one can argue that they too have consciousness-even if it is qualitatively and quantitatively much different from human consciousness. While animals exhibit perceptual consciousness, which is mediated chiefly by the senses and includes all types of awareness, whether they possess reflective consciousness or not is still doubtful. Reflective consciousness refers to thinking or experiencing feelings about thoughts and feelings themselves and it includes self awareness.

Tests for consciousness

Because primates are evolutionarily and physiologically close to humans, they have been extensively studied in consciousness experiments. Other animals that have been studied include monkeys, elephants and Cetaceans (whales, dolphins).

One of the simplest tests to see whether animals are self-aware is the mirror test. In this test, a prominent marking is made on the animal’s body while it is asleep or is sedated.

Upon being later shown in a mirror, if the animal attends to or tries to remove the mark from its own body, then it is recognising the image as that of itself. Chimps, pigeons, dogs and dolphins are among the animals that have passed the mirror test. Incidentally children need to be at least one-and-a-half years old before they can pass the mirror test.

But consciousness is much more than body awareness. Several elegantly designed tests try to study aspects like memory and decision making in animals in order to demonstrate consciousness or the lack there of. Natural observation and lab experiments have also shown that some animals seem to understand what others are seeing. Macaque monkeys have been seen to steal when the handler can’t see the grape. Chimpanzees have been observed to groom other males when they seem to think they are not being seen by the alpha male- but is it that the animal can imagine what the other is perceiving- that is, have a theory of mind(however rudimentary) or is this simply genetic programming or trial and error learning?

Another way of testing animal consciousness is to see whether they monitor their own mental states. In one experiment, dolphins were trained to distinguish between low and high tones by using a reward paradigm. They were taught to press two different paddles, one for high and another for low tones. Near their discriminatory threshold (when they could no longer distinguish clearly whether it was a low or high tone) there were expectedly many errors. Interestingly, when an escape paddle was introduced, (with no reward or penalty) dolphins chose this over the high/low paddle thereby avoiding error response! Does this mean that dolphins can judge their own mental state of “uncertainty”?

Sentient beings

Dolphins are also known to have ‘signature’ tunes, the particular whistle associated with each dolphin. These whistles are used as names, not only for announcing themselves but to call others. Scientists interpret this too as evidence for self awareness. Naturalists like Jane Goodall have commented on how chimps actually seem to enjoy beauty in nature and scientists raising chimps for language experiments have remarked on the very human child-like nature of these animals. Are these evidence of sentience?

The biggest hindrance to studying consciousness in animals is their lack of language. Even the most complex of animal communication does not possess features like reflection (ability to think about language itself) that all languages have. Or do human beings possess reflective consciousness because of their unique ability to use language and because of the advantages that having a conscious mind offers?

The final word about animal consciousness is not yet out despite a long history of enquiry into it. As more and more scientific disciplines get involved, more questions are likely to be raised.

The answers when they come will perhaps steer us away from our anthropocentric activities.