Friday, June 16, 2017

Is there evidence for animal consciousness?

animal consciousness
The evidence for animal consciousness is overwhelming. The question is, should this prompt us to change our behaviour towards animals?

Are animals conscious, and to what extent? One area of scientific study used to answer this question has been human-animal relationships, and animals’ subjective experience of us. Studies have shown that different human individuals are perceived differently by animals. This leads to behaviour on a scale from avoidance to bonding.

Most people who live with non-human animals are aware of this, and interact with animals on the assumption that they are interacting with conscious beings (indeed, we assume this of other humans). Whether it’s a dairy cow or a dog, animals may respond with more or less enthusiasm, affection, even aggression, to different individuals. Hero headbutts me (in the nice way, as opposed to the Liverpool kiss kind of way), bolts from anyone who he hasn’t met before, and only lets individuals he is very used to within his personal space (and even then, there are varying levels of trust). He knows who is likely to feed him.

According to the authors of a recent scientific review, “this indicates that conscious, rather than strictly predetermined and automatic processes, may emerge in the development of human-animal relationships”(Le Neindre et al., 2017). In this review, a team of scientists cited 659 references, 75 per cent of which were sourced from international scientific journals and 33 per cent of which were published since 2010.

In 2012, a group of leading scientists gathered and signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness. After a preamble, which you can read here, they declared: 
“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 behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates”(Low et al., 2012).
Essentially, animals do experience emotions, they have episodic memory, social structures that rely on social cognitive abilities, and many exhibit metacognition (thinking about thinking). They have the equipment to generate consciousness (even if it’s different to ours). But it stopped there. The big question is, how should this information change our treatment of animals?

The recent review, published by the European Food Safety Authority, is comprehensive and summarises our knowledge about consciousness – of humans as well as animals. It states that, among other things, 
“As for animals, human consciousness might be best described as the emerging product of interactions between different functional layers constituted by perceptual, attentional, mnesic, emotional and evaluative competencies which revolve around a central node supporting core regulations involved in vigilance and central rhythms. Upon the perception of a stimulus of interest, several of these layers are activated and interact to ultimately produce interpretations and intentionality which are externalised through the expression of conscious actions. Thus, processes related to consciousness allow the emergence of responses which have greater complexity and content than the simple combination or addition of individual responses to separate systems”.(Le Neindre et al., 2017)

The authors of the recent report go a step beyond the signatories of the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, stating that “the different levels and contents of consciousness documented in animals should give rise to commensurate ethical considerations, especially regarding domestic animals used in farming, research, work, sports or companionship”(Le Neindre et al., 2017).

For anyone with an interest in animal welfare, consciousness (in any species) or ethics, these documents are worth a read. The evidence demands that we consider some confronting questions. What are the implications for veterinarians? What are the implications for society as a whole? Should we change current practices? Which ones? How? 

References

LE NEINDRE, P., BERNARD, E., BOISSY, A., BOIVIN, X., CALANDREAU, L., DELON, N., DEPUTTE, B., DESMOULIN-CANSELIER, S., DUNIER, M., FAIVRE, N., GIURFA, M., GUICHET, J.-L., LANSADE, L., LARRÈRE, R., MORMÈDE, P., PRUNET, P., SCHAAL, B., SERVIÈRE, J. & TERLOUW, C. 2017. Animal Consciousness. EFSA Supporting Publications, 14, 1196E-n/a.

LOW, P., PANKSEPP, J., REISS, D., EDELMAN, D., VAN SWINDEREN, B. & KOCH, C. 2012. The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness. In: LOW, P. (ed.) Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals. Churchill College, University of Cambridge.

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