The problem of consciousness still remains confusing and is divided not so much among academic schools, but according to their philosophical approaches. What is it all about when we talk about consciousness? Is it a necessary part of complex cognitive processes of understanding the world? Are there different types, forms and levels of development of consciousness? Do animals have consciousness?
In fact, the mystery surrounding the last question is gradually dissipating as more and more features we are accustomed to assign to human thinking and human consciousness can be found in animals. And quite often, these animals are not chimpanzees or orangutans similar to humans. These can be wolves, dogs and even parrots.
Autists: A distinct level
Professor Temple Grandin, a prominent scientific figure in the world, is the main character of a bestseller “Anthropologist on Mars” by an equally famous neurologist Oliver Sacks. Professor Grandin is an autist and an expert in animal behavior. The unique combination of these qualities allowed her to hypothesize that the autistic mind is closer to animals than to consciousness of people with normal brain development. Temple Grandin further developed her idea in the book “Thinking in pictures” (1995), and later in the book entitled “Animals in Translation” (2005). By the way, a big screen film about the life of the famous scientist, played by Claire Dance, was released in 2010.
Temple Grandin identifies four hierarchical levels of consciousness: consciousness within one sensory system, consciousness which integrates information derived from all sensory systems of the body, consciousness linking this information with emotions, and finally consciousness capable to process these experiences in thought and language.
The researcher places herself and other autists only on the second level, where integration of various types of information takes place, but this information cannot be released through emotions or be automatically translated into linguistic symbols. That’s why the first book by Grandin is called “Thinking in pictures“. We can, of course, choose not to agree with this classification. However, the theory looks quite versatile and helpful in figuring out how consciousness works in animals.
The cognitive abilities of corvidae (crows) are studied by the Cambridge zoologist Nicola Clayton. Sophisticated and ingenious experiments on ravens, crows and jays allowed her and her colleagues to identify the types of behavior that are usually associated with the presence of self-consciousness developing in children at the age following first years of their life.
For example, if a jay notices that it had been watched while it hides its food, it always returns to the “stash” and re-hides it inconspicuously from the prying eyes. It is interesting that this behavior is manifested in these birds only after they steal some other bird’s food stash.
This shows that corvidae have a complex ability to model another creature’s mental predisposition. This property entails perception of what others may know and may not know and how they will act based on this knowledge. It is clear that such perception should be an essential attribute of self-consciousness and consciousness in general.
Children can develop ways to model the perception of another’s mental state on average only by the age of four. In fact, it was recently shown that two-year olds, even when their own experience tells them that the other person cannot peep at them from behind an opaque mask, are unable to adequately interpret this piece of information and use it as part of their behavior.
Another funny example of an exceptional “consciousness” of the crow family is their ability to predict changes in the environment caused by their own behavior. They can throw pebbles into a bowl to make water level rise and get to the food floating on the surface. Humans reach this kind of intelligence at the age of up to seven years.
In short, corvidae clearly show examples of behavior that can be expected only from creatures which have some form of consciousness. To say the least, when seeing this in our own children, we would be astonished by such an amazing ability. Corvidae have episodic memory, and even able to come up with quite complex and multi-step actions, for example, to provide breakfast for the next day. And although not all birds are as “intelligent”, these amazing cognitive abilities are not only present in corvidae, but also, for example, in parrots.
Canidae: Living as a community
However, the greatest number of studies on intelligence and consciousness in animals is conducted on mammals. During the 2013 conference “The emergence of consciousness in animals and human behavior” in Brussels, American ethologist Marc Bekoff presented his findings of the study devoted to the honesty of coyotes and wolves that live in the Grand Teton National Park. The scientist has shown that during their games these animals use a number of approaches to improve the chances of playmates to make their activities more interesting and beneficial for all.
More powerful wolves can deter a strong effect of their bites and sometimes during the game they can even temporarily switch roles, when the dominant male will give up its position of the winner to a submissive male. It turns out that canidae are not only aware of their rank within social hierarchy and related behavior, but can even put themselves in another member’s spot and adopt corresponding behavioral patterns. Just like children playing the game of hide and seek.
From his observations of coyotes, Marc Bekoff came up with four rules, which always serve as guiding principles of animals’ games: “be an initiator”, “play fair”, “follow the rules” and “admit it if you are wrong“. According to the scientist, the cub, which does not comply with these rules, after turning into an adult, cannot form a stable social relations and maintain good position in social hierarchy. As a consequence, the mortality rate of these individuals is much higher than of those members of society coyotes which follow these rules.
Hungarian scientists experimented with dogs which are more familiar to us, studying their behavior during interactions with subjects quite different from them: humans and robots. The authors showed that with time dogs exhibit certain expectations, perceptions of worthy and unworthy behavior, social role, etc.
However, chimpanzee species, both common and dwarf (Bonobo), are genetically and anatomically closer to us. No wonder they are the most popular subjects of studies on consciousness. Recently published results of studies by American scientists describe how bonobos living in the temples of the Republic of the Congo console each other.
The temples are inhabited by a large number of these chimpanzees, many of which are brought here at young age, after the death of their mother. Here they are cared for and nursed by people. Scientists have found that the emotional balance of bonobos is directly related to the willingness to soothe and comfort others after angry outbursts or unsuccessful battle with a rival. This balance and empathic abilities are better developed in the young, who grew up with their mothers.
The ability to be empathic, or empathy, is a key trait for almost all of our social interactions. It allows not only to comfort others, but also to put ourselves in their place, understand and predict their possible reaction to these or other circumstances. This is a crucial part of modeling mental state of others mentioned earlier.
No wonder that while summing up the findings presented at the symposium in Brussels, prominent American philosopher Daniel Dennett urged not to rely on strict distinction between “developed” animals possessing “almost human” consciousness, and all the other “bio-robots” deprived of this ability. According to Dennett , consciousness evolves very slowly and represents a required property for any large interconnected neural networks of any complex brain.
It is quite noticeable that modern scholars try to study not so much consciousness by itself in animals, but rather some of its manifestations. The ability to recognize oneself in the mirror, the ability to plan one’s actions, empathy and so on are all the traits that we believe we gain through consciousness. With this approach, Dennett is absolutely right: these or other aspects of “consciousness” can easily be found in fish, and even in invertebrates.
According to this postulate, consciousness by itself ceases to be discrete, something that is either there or not, and turns into a vague, gradual structure, with its complexity growing slowly and gradually. The types and forms of consciousness may be numerous and different from what we tend to expect, and include more categories than the four proposed by Temple Grandin. In fact, their number can be as great as the number of animals with a well-developed nervous system.