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Humans need a test for animal consciousness

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We need a proper test for consciousness in animals

Humans are learning that animals are smarter than we thought they were. This is leading to greater sensitivity and respect towards animals but it is an incredibly slow process. There are some remarkable stories of animal intelligence. However, does this translate to self-awareness or self-consciousness? Are animals conscious of their existence? Can they step outside themselves and observe and measure their behaviour as humans do?

We need a proper test for consciousness in animals

Photo: David Bradley who said, “This little fella alighted on our wing mirror the moment I switched off the engine, spent a couple of minutes squaring up to himself and pecking at the glass. Not sure whether it was aggression, part of a quest for food, or a bizarre and inappropriate courtship attempt.”

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The problem probably, according to Jonathan Birch from LSE, is that we do not have a scientific means of absolutely testing consciousness in animals, which would settle the point without further discussion.

Perhaps we should not even ask whether they have consciousness as humans do but accept that they might have their own version of it. And perhaps, too, there is a wide spectrum, a continuum, as Tom Whipple, The Times science editor describes it of different degrees of consciousness among animals.

In humans there is a brain structure called the corpus callosum which links the two, left and right, hemispheres of the brain. When it is damaged people report that they have two streams of consciousness. Starlings do not have a corpus callosum. Does this mean that they don’t have consciousness? Or does it mean that they had their own version of it?

Why do I mention starlings? There is an interesting study on pessimism in starlings. The study is about emotion. The researchers gave them tasty maggots in white boxes. They also gave them unpleasant-tasting maggots in black boxes. Quickly they learned to open the white boxes and ignore the black ones. They presented the starlings with maggots in grey boxes. Starlings who had lived a tough life took a pessimistic view about the quality of the maggots inside the grey box and shunned it. Conversely, starlings who had lived in a nice cage and who had had a good life took a more optimistic viewpoint and decided that the grey box contained tasty maggots and opened it.

It is a study which goes into the mind of starlings and their emotions. Of the stories about animal intelligence narrated by Tom Whipple, one of the greatest is that of a dolphin called Kelly. Kelly lived at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The aquarium acquired litter and the keepers decided that the dolphins could pick it up from the bottom to their aquarium and trained them to do this. One dolphin was particularly good at it and her name was Kelly. She was better than they thought. In order to train them they gave him a reward of fish as a form of positive reinforcement. Kelly realises that she could get more fish when she was hungry if she tore strips off the litter at the bottom of the aquarium and offer the scraps to the keepers. This allowed her to deliver far more litter than was actually there. Thus demonstrating acute intelligence and reasoning. However, we still don’t know whether dolphins, for sure, are self-conscious.

Another experiment which shows high intelligence in amimals is one concerning crows. Professor Nicola Clayton tested out a fable in which a crow carefully placed pebbles into a pitcher of water to raise the water up so that they could drink it. She presented Caledonian crows with inaccessible water and some pebbles. They quickly learned that if they grasped the pebbles in their beaks and deposited them into the pitcher of water, the water would rise so they could drink it.

The experiment is particularly interesting because the researchers discovered, surprisingly, that children don’t seem to be able to spontaneously understand the process of pushing water up a container by dropping in solid objects (i.e. displacing the water). They could only work this out when they were eight years of age. Does this mean that crows are smarter than children younger than the age of eight? It doesn’t but on that specific task it does.

On the issue of culture, humans consider themselves to be apart from animals. But this appears not to be the case. I recently wrote about chimpanzees putting a piece of grass in the area as a form of decoration in one group in Africa. When chimpanzees started it and then the others followed thereby creating a culture spontaneously.

We know that elephants are intelligent and they mourn the death of one of their group. We know that dolphins sometimes place sponges on their noses to protect themselves when they borrow under the seabed for food. The question here is whether the dolphins simply learn by trial and error that this helps them or whether they’ve thought through the matter rationally. In other words do they know why they do it rather than simply doing it by trial and error and chance.

I have written about measuring self-consciousness through watching animals look at themselves in mirrors. There is a picture in The Times today of a blue tit looking at themselves in the wing mirror of a vehicle at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Arger Fen & Spouse’s Reservoir. The bird does not recognise themselves in the mirror.

Are cats self-aware?

Are cats self-aware? They don’t understand mirrors and their reflection. Image in public domain.

There are many videos of domestic cats being amused and confused about their mirror image, often deciding that there is another cat behind the mirror. They sometimes inspect behind the mirror to see what is going on but they do not, apparently, recognise their reflections. I had felt that this indicated strongly that they could not be self-conscious. But perhaps it is not as black and white as that. Perhaps they have their own version of consciousness which currently we cannot test for.