Lessons from Toto: A Review of Animal Consciousness

Author: Petra Dujmic


Originally published Feb. 27, 2020.


When I was six years old, I skinned my elbow. It had been a beautiful day in the middle of March (and we Bostonians know how rare nice days are in the month during which spring supposedly “arrives”), so my father proposed that he and I go out and practice my bicycle-riding skills around the elementary school. I agreed happily, only to come home a few minutes later nursing my cut elbow like battle wound, tears rolling down my cheeks. Of course, my inconsiderate six-year-old self neglected to realize that all my dramatic crying could affect my friend’s dog Toto, which we had agreed to dog-sit for the next few weeks and sat on the couch — ears perked up — when I walked into the living room. Once he detected the source of the chaos, I expected him to go back to sleep or perhaps even growl, but instead Toto sprang from his seat, scuttled over to me, and put his paw on my lap.

I was baffled. “How does this animal know that I’m upset? Has he been trained to respond to human emotional distress, or this just a natural response?” I wondered to myself, gazing into Toto’s sweet brown eyes.

Now, I’m sure I’m not alone in relating this surprising anecdote. Several of my friends who own pets have recounted similar tales that have perplexed me and have only served to intensify the initial curiosity my six-year-old self experienced. Are animals really conscious? And if they are, to what extent is their state of consciousness similar to that of humans? According to the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, a document that has been signed by 16 well-known scientists, “convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.” Providing much of the evidence off which the authors of the declaration based their conclusion, the INRA, Europe’s top agricultural institute, similarly concluded that while “different manifestations of consciousness can be observed in animals…the overall picture obtained from the large range of species considered strongly provides evidence for different types of consciousness in both livestock and fish.” The INRA researchers reviewed a variety of international literature on animal consciousness before including animals in the prestigious group of “thinking” organisms, sifting through “659 references selected from the Web of ScienceTM Core Collection (WOS) database.” Furthermore, the researchers on the panel were from a variety of professions, including biology, psychology, and philosophy, leaving little to no doubt that animals are in fact “conscious” organisms. But how “conscious” — based off human standards — are they really?,” which in turn could greatly improve our ability to gauge the level of awareness in nonhuman animals. By analyzing the “complex visual information through the eyes of animals,” scientists are one step closer to understanding what conscious behaviors animals are primed to exhibit.

Carl Safina, professor at the School of Journalism of Stony Brook University in New York, pinpoints some of these conscious behaviors in his 2015 publication “Beyond World: How Animals Think and Feel.” In a conversation with National Geographic, professor Safina explains that he believes life to be “very vivid to animals. In many cases they know who they are. They know who their friends are and who their rivals are. They have ambitions for higher status. They compete. Their lives follow the arc of a career, like ours do.” Elaborating in particular on altruism, professor Safina relates one story of how “an old woman who couldn’t see well, got lost and was found the next day with elephants guarding her. They had encased her in sort of a cage of branches to protect her from hyenas.” As illustrated by these examples, it is clear that on the surface, animals do appear to display complex behaviors that we humans consciously execute. But is the exhibition of seemingly conscious behavior enough to confirm the existence of consciousness itself?

Diving even further, Prinz (2005) and Block (2005) have tried to identify the “neurological substrates of consciousness” that the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness cites. While both Prinz et. al. and Block et. al. found evidence of neural processes correlated with consciousness (particularly in mammals), Prinz narrows the processes of interest to include only those that “are involved in attention to intermediate-level perceptual representations which feed into working memory.” Other scientists cite the similarity in architecture of the thalamocortical system (considered to be essential for consciousness) between humans and past and present mammals as evidence of the existence of animal consciousness (the “homology” argument). Still other scientists suggest that animals and humans share functional processes associated with consciousness, namely “information integration through effective cortical connectivity (Massimini et al., 2005; Rosanova et al., 2012) and elaboration of information at a global level (Dehaene and Changeux, 2011)” — the “analogy” argument.

Ultimately, as researchers continue to implement advanced tools such as the QCPA into comparing brain structures and processes correlated with consciousness, society continues to piece together a more complete answer to the issue of animal consciousness. Although international committees have affirmed the consciousness of animals, the extent to which certain species experience consciousness comparable to humans is still an area of active research. In the coming decade, researchers predict that cognitive neuroscientific methods will provide valuable approaches to expanding upon philosophy’s distribution question (i.e. “are there other conscious animals apart from humans?”). We may soon broaden the category of “conscious” animals, and although we may never form a concrete answer to philosophy’s phenomenological question (“what is it like to be a non-human animal?”) given the private nature of consciousness, we can rest assured of at least this: we needn’t look into outer space to find conscious companions of another species. We are blessed with companions right here around us, sharing the Earth with us, whether they be bears or tigers or even small, empathetic poodles named Toto.


References:

Allen, Colin, and Michael Trestman. “Animal Consciousness.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 24 Oct. 2016, plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/#theory-neurofunctionalism.

Perry, Heather, et al. “Yes, Animals Think And Feel. Here’s How We Know.” Yes, Animals Think And Feel. Here’s How We Know, 8 Nov. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/07/150714-animal-dog-thinking-feelings-brain-science/.

Neuroscience News. “Through the Eyes of Animals.” Neuroscience News, 3 Dec. 2019, neurosciencenews.com/animal-vision-eyes-15280/.

Bekoff, Marc. “Animal Consciousness: New Report Puts All Doubts to Sleep.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 26 Jan. 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/201801/animal-consciousness-new-report-puts-all-doubts-sleep.

Grasso, Matteo. “Cognitive Neuroscience and Animal Consciousness.” ResearchGate, May 2014, www.researchgate.net/publication/281208748_Cognitive_Neuroscience_and_Animal_Consciousness.

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