\ Are Animals Conscious

Are Animals Conscious?

A Tour Through the Issues
Starting from the lowest level of consciousness, I agree with Damasio's position that conscious awareness of the surroundings requires more than just the sensory input itself; that it requires an interaction between the sensory input and the body state of the organism. For example, it could be said that a room thermostat receives sensory input from an aspect of the environment, namely, the temperature of the air in the room. But the thermostat does not have a body state whose well-being depends upon the quantity being sensed and also, therefor, lacks any mechanism to evaluate the room temperature in terms of its impact on the thermostat's well-being. So we can safely say that the thermostat is not conscious of the room temperature.

At a slightly higher level, we might ask whether, for instance, plants might be aware of their environment. While, in this case, the well-being of the plant certainly is affected by the surroundings, the plant still has no mechanism to evaluate that well-being, so we can also say that the plant is not conscious of its environment. Of course, the plant can implement certain behaviors in relation to the environment, such as turning leaves or blossoms toward a source of light or a carnivorous plant closing its leaf upon being touched. However, there is no reason to believe that the mechanism which does this is fundamentally any more complex than the thermostat's action in turning on the furnace. An evaluation mechanism is still missing. Also, we would note that any "memory" the plant might have for environmental conditions would be limited to changes in the gross physical form, such as a tree growing to adjust for a prevailing wind, ie., there is no mental component of such "memories".

This question of the evaluation of the surroundings with respect to the well-being of the organism is perhaps the most perplexing in the case of the invertebrates. Although it seems rather doubtful that such an evaluation could be performed, the nervous system of these organisms is currently not well enough understood to completely rule out the possibility. Consider a honey bee returning to the hive after a successful foray. To what extent does the bee actively evaluate the location of the nectar (or a memory of that location) in terms of its own "personal" interest? It is certainly a more complex computation than that performed by the thermostat, but is it any less automatic? To explore the bee's nervous system, one can imagine various experiments to determine the extent to which the bee's behavior could be "reprogrammed".

At about this level, we begin to see the ability of the organism to incorporate "memories", even a flatworm can "learn" to negotiate a maze. This seems slightly less physical and more mental than the tree growing to adapt to the wind. However, it still seems quite doubtful that this "memory" involves in any direct way an evaluation of the sensory input as it affects the body state.

In fact, there are convincing cases of active memory usage at these levels. There is a type of wasp which learns its way home by landmarks. If you move the local landmarks while the wasp is gone, it will be confused on returning and will perform an exhaustive search of the neighborhood until it finds the nest. What is the relation between complexity of such behaviors and the question of mentality? Can it be argued that this behavior implies Damasio's required level of body state processing?

An example of a lower vertebrate case might be the frog's sense of a bug-resembling, possible food source. The frog will lunge at a bug-sized pellet flipped past it, but will totally ignore a real bug sitting motionless in front. Of course, we can not directly infer anything about the frog's sense of what happened from the inaccuracies in its behavior, but that behavior does appear to suggest that it is an automatic process.

Certainly, by the time we move up the ladder beyond the lowest vertebrates, perhaps to the rat, there is good reason to believe that the body state is computationally available and can be used as a basis for sensory evaluations. According to Damasio's interpretation, we would then say that the creature is aware of those sensory inputs. In fact, Damasio makes the specific claim that the cingulate gyrus in involved (at least in humans) with the body image processing as required for C. In a rat, this brain area is extremely primitive, if it exists at all. In a cat or a dog, on the other hand, it is much better developed.

Damasio makes what I believe is a very useful distinction, separating the ideas of feelings and emotions. He considers feelings to be the organism's internal view of various body states and conditions, while emotions are the external display of those internal views. An emotional display thus rests upon the organism's awareness of the feeling. Through the kinematic senses, the organism may then become aware of having produced the emotional display, which can produce its own feeling, leading to a second round, an intensification of the emotional display.

We now have to be much more careful in determining the role of memory. To the extent that the animal is capable of evaluating a recalled memory in a way corresponding to the usual evaluation of the present moment, we would have to say that the animal would be aware of the past. Certainly, the animal can be trained to respond to remembered patterns. What is not clear is the extent to which such patterns are consciously evaluated. It is possible that even the rat is dimly aware of the present moment and the cat, dog or horse may be able to think of memories from the past. The complexity of a dolphin's responses would certainly seem to indicate a complex evaluation of recalled memories.

How the World is Viewed
A related and interesting question, is the differing nature of the sensory input for various animals. Much has been made, even in the funny papers, of the fact that dogs and cats appear to be largely color blind. On the other hand, they have olfactory senses well beyond ours. Bats and owls clearly enjoy a detailed world view based on information which arrives through their ears. Snakes see infrared photons.

The astounding thing about this is the ability of the brain's sensory processing functions to construct a coherent and consistent internal representation of what that world is like, based on whatever inputs are available. Humans are blind to infrared and ultraviolet light, ultrasound, and all but the most pleasant or obnoxious smells, and yet we feel that the world, as we sense it, is complete. We are not usually aware of the missing pieces. This must be so for all of the animals which are conscious of their sensory inputs, whatever the type or range of the sensory mechanisms.

The Self
The next step up involves the nature of the self image, whether or to what extent the organism is aware of itself. Interesting observations which shed some light on this aspect of C involve the interactions of various animals with mirrors.

Even a bird will take note of a mirror, parading and sometimes pecking at the image. However, there seems to be no reason to believe that the bird is reacting to itself rather than another bird. This behavior is similar up to the level of a chimpanzee. If you paint a red spot on the forehead of a dog or cat before introducing the mirror, the animal will paw at the mirror where it sees the spot. The chimpanzee will reach up and touch its own forehead, watching in the mirror as it does so.

This ability to be aware of the self seems to require a new level of cognitive processing, namely the ability to form a concept. All lower forms of sensory awareness can be explained as a direct awareness of the sensory patterns, admittedly with objects recognized and categorized, but not conceptualized or symbolized. Even though the philosophers and the psychologists cannot completely agree on the nature of this new ability, it seems quite clear that it is a fundamental step upward in the nature of C. The next step up is the ability to apply words to these newly found concepts. Some would argue that the concept cannot exist without the word. I would say that the chimp's mirror-viewing behavior is evidence for the formation of a concept without language.

So what is all this about concepts? Is a concept anything more than "that which you can conceive of"? I would only add that conceiving of something includes to be able to do so in the absence of any external stimulus which would represent that thing. But then why do I say that the self-image requires a concept? What I have in mind here is that the self-image is more than just the perception of one's own hands and feet, maybe a glimpse of the tip of the nose or the torso. More than the sounds of the various parts, working away. I claim that to be aware of one's self-image also includes memories of past images and perhaps even more importantly, memories of previously worked out future plans and how the present view of the self and its current state fits with those past futures. It means being able to synthesize all that into something new, which is at no point represented by a present stimulus. It is in this sense that I claim it is a concept.

Probably the most striking impact of language on the nature of C is the ability to describe the self image -- to one's self or to others. It is surely possible to recall a memory of a past self image and perhaps even compare that memory to the present self image, all without language. But how much more complex can that comparison be when abstract patterns from memory can be expressed in words? The words themselves then become a part of the present self image, to again be recalled and compared at a later time. Because of its more abstract nature, planning for the future is even more dependent on language, perhaps to the point that little of such planning can meaningfully be done without language.

For most humans, it seems that words form a major portion of the contents of C. (Visual images make up another large portion for most people). This is probably even more true for non-sighted people, where sound replaces the visual input. The mind seems intent on supplying an endless stream of verbal commentary. Living alone, in the quiet, I have nurtured the ability to work for long stretches at a time with the internal verbal stream shut off. To be sure, I am surrounded by an equally endless stream of written materials. Even the numbers on the clock face can be considered as a form of linguistic communication. But if, for example, I go outside to set up the lawn sprinkler, I would often complete the entire operation without encountering a single linguistic form. I imagine this to be somewhat similar to the experience of the chimpanzee, happily going about his daily business.

With meditative practice, it should be possible to turn off conceptualization, making it possible to experience the C of a cat or a mouse. A Zen master might even be able to cease the continual evaluation of all sensory inputs, perhaps allowing the master to experience what it is like to be an insect.

The Opposing View
In fairness, a counter argument to the above line of reasoning must be mentioned. Many argue that language is absolutely necessary for even the most meager form of C, that without words, C is impossible. When I am working in my wordless state, I am definitely not aware of any form of underlying language dependencies, but I concede that this impression could be illusory.

One of the pieces of evidence cited by this faction is the spilt brain data described by Gazzaniga. The argument goes that if a callosotomized patient is completely unaware of right hemisphere activities unless they are somehow communicated to the left hemisphere, then the entire seat of C must be in the left hemisphere and (therefore?) language related. The facts are certainly interesting, but, to my mind, do not justify the stated conclusions. I can imagine some sort of inhibitory action imposed by the dominant hemisphere, which would repress the weaker form of C as produced by the opposite side.

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