Animal consciousness seems like a forgone conclusion at this point of our existence, but now it’s official.
The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness was signed by a group that consists of cognitive scientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists.
The Field of Consciousness Research is Rapidly Evolving
Abundant new techniques and strategies for human and non-human animal research have been developed. Consequently, more data is becoming readily available, and this calls for a periodic re-evaluation of previously held preconceptions in this field.
Studies of non-human animals have shown that homologous brain circuits correlated with conscious experience and perception can be selectively facilitated and disrupted to assess whether they are in fact necessary for those experiences. Moreover, in humans, new non-invasive techniques are readily available to survey the correlates of consciousness.
Emotion and Evolution
The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, sub-cortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing.
Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states. Systems associated with affect are concentrated in sub-cortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and non-human animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electro-physiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus).
Consciousness is Everywhere
Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive micro-circuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated in zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex. Magpies in particular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition.
In humans, the effect of certain hallucinogens appears to be associated with a disruption in cortical feed-forward and feedback processing. Pharmacological interventions in non-human animals with compounds known to affect conscious behavior in humans can lead to similar perturbations in behavior in non-human animals. In humans, there is evidence to suggest that awareness is correlated with cortical activity, which does not exclude possible contributions by sub-cortical or early cortical processing, as in visual awareness. Evidence that human and nonhuman animal emotional feelings arise from homologous sub-cortical brain networks provide compelling evidence for evolutionarily shared primal affective qualia.
BBC’s documentary, Super Smart Animals, exemplifies the high cognitive functions that animals possess.
Consciousness is everywhere and we will uncover more of its tracks as our egoic human nature subsides so that we may be open to more possibilities within a conscious universe.