A congregation of scientists in Cambridge, UK, recently issued a formal declaration that lots of non-human animals, including mammals, birds, and likely even octopuses are conscious beings. What do they mean by consciousness, you ask? It's a state of awareness of one's body and one's environment, anywhere from basic perceptual awareness to the reflective self-awareness of humans. This declaration will surely strike many of us as ancient news and a long overdue recognition, even as it may annoy the stubborn skeptics among us.
Below is an abstract about the conference followed by the full declaration. I found the lectures delivered on the occasion quite interesting. I haven't heard them all but I can recommend Irene Pepperberg's "Human-like Consciousness in Non-Humans: Evidence from Grey Parrots" (watch two short videos on these birds: one, two). I also liked Diane Reiss's "Mirror Self-recognition: A Case for Cognitive Convergence in Humans and Other Animals". And if you want to consider the octopus, as DFW enjoined, watch David B. Edelman's "Through the Eyes of an Octopus".
The First Annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference, focusing on "Consciousness in Humans and Non-Human Animals", aims to provide a purely data-driven perspective on the neural correlates of consciousness. The most advanced quantitative techniques for measuring and monitoring consciousness will be presented, with the topics of focus ranging from exploring the properties of neurons deep in the brainstem, to assessing global cerebral function in comatose patients. Model organisms investigated will span the species spectrum from flies to rodents, humans to birds, elephants to dolphins, and will be approached from the viewpoint of three branches of biology: anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Until animals have their own storytellers, humans will always have the most glorious part of the story, and with this proverbial concept in mind, the symposium will address the notion that humans do not alone possess the neurological faculties that constitute consciousness as it is presently understood.
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness*
On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observations can be stated unequivocally:
- 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 reevaluation 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.
- The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical 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 subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and non- human animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological 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).
- 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 microcircuitries 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 feedforward 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 subcortical or early cortical processing, as in visual awareness. Evidence that human and non- human animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks provide compelling evidence for evolutionarily shared primal affective qualia.
- We declare the following: “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 behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non- human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
* The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch. The Declaration was publicly proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, by Low, Edelman and Koch. The Declaration was signed by the conference participants that very evening, in the presence of Stephen Hawking, in the Balfour Room at the Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, UK. The signing ceremony was memorialized by CBS 60 Minutes.