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The Question of Animal Consciousness - How Hard is It?

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

Animals can teach us a lot about mindfulness

Science has yet to prove that humans are conscious. And yet, I dare to pose the question of Animal Consciousness. I can't prove that animals are conscious. But then scientists cannot prove they are not. For me, while I can't prove it, I know that when I choose this perspective, everything changes about how I relate to animals. Both the ones that I have direct contact with, as well as those in other parts of the world. If I view animals as conscious, I relate to them differently. It allows me to connect on a deeper level, and it opens the door to communication.

So, this is why I choose to embark on the journey of exploration of animal consciousness. I hope you will join me in considering this possibility, as it changes everything about how we can engage with them.

David Chalmers, Professor of Philosophy at New York University coined the term "The Hard Problem" because the question of the existence of consciousness is not something we can either confirm or deny based on our current scientific methods of measurement. It is "hard" in that it isn't easy to prove the existence of consciousness.

The Furry Problem:

Here are some reasons I believe the time has come to consider the "hard" question from a soft and furry perspective. My perspective suggests that the brain may not be the center of consciousness. While the brain may engage consciousness, it may not be its source. The idea that animals may possess a kind of consciousness has huge implications for how we treat them, and for what we consider acceptable conditions for them to live in. Shall we dance with this idea?

The question is: "Are Humans Conscious?"

Harvard University presented the first animal consciousness conference in 2014. The last ten years have produced significant scientific research and publications that explore and disrupt long-standing assumptions about the potential for numerous species of animals to experience a rich inner life. For example, there was a time when the defining line between humans and animals was thought to be tool making. Now, just about every species studied, from the octopus to the elephant, the dolphin, the raven, etc., shows the use of cognitively complex tool making.

Then there was the question of language acquisition and purposeful communication. Primates such as Koko, the gorilla were taught sign language, and she not only had the vocabulary of a three-year-old human child but has given us profound insight into her rich emotional life. Science is also uncovering the complexity of whale songs, and many other species who seem to be communicating in meaningful ways with each other. Or crows and prairie dogs who can communicate with each other about which humans are friendly and which ones are foes.

Prairie dogs remember humans who are nice or not

Several studies (De Waal and others) point to self-awareness, cooperation, and empathy, (mice, for example, have been shown to have pain mirror responses when they see others in pain), and many animals show comforting behaviors to those who are distressed emotionally and suffering physically. Other studies show a sense of time in social animals. De Waal has shown evidence of emotions in animals and pro-social behaviors such as conciliation, reconciliation, reciprocity, and a sense of fairness. Animal “inequity aversion” shows how capuchin monkeys will not work and perform tasks for unequal pay. Other studies show some species will decline a treat unless their friend gets the same reward. That science is taking these questions very seriously is evident in the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness in non-human animals (see addendum).

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns at Emory University has pioneered fMRI’s on awake dogs, to explore their rich emotional lives and responses to specific stimuli. The pursuit of physical and emotional pleasure has been demonstrated by animal behavior research scientist Johnathan Balcombe, who has demonstrated that animals feel pain and stress, and also proposes that evolution favors sensory rewards because they drive living creatures to stay alive and reproduce.

Dogs trained to enter MRI machines - Gregory Berns

Laboratory mice have been shown to anticipate being tickled, and laugh when given this attention (although inaudible to the human ear, new audio detection technology reveals these vocalizations). John W. Pilley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Wolford College, has taught his dog Chaser, a border collie, over 1,000 words, and Chaser can understand significant differences in grammatical structure. Wild dolphins have complex social structures.

John M. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that crows and wild ravens would remember a human face, as either “friend or foe” even years later. Even more perplexing is that the ravens can communicate this information to other ravens hundreds of miles away who have never seen this particular human, but will recognize that individual as either friend or foe without ever having had contact with the person. Somehow the ravens have communicated this important information to each other.

Many species have been observed making tools, recognizing their reflection in mirrors, having a sense of time – including the memory of the past, awareness of the present, and anticipation of the future. Many species of social animals have been shown to have high levels of compassion, even with members of other species (such as the two-year-old chimpanzee, Anjana, who without training nursed orphaned Siberian Tiger cubs, lions, and leopards who were without mothers.)

Chimp mothers orphan Siberian Cub

In addition to animals learning the meaning of elements of human language, studies of the animals’ natural communication methods are blossoming, as demonstrated in the work of Klaus Zuberbuhler at the Department of Psychology at the Max Planck Institute and at the University of Pennsylvania. His field research with Diana monkeys in West Africa has revealed that their own language is rich and complex, and their calls are purposeful. One specific call indicates to the other members of their group that a leopard is present, versus a slightly different call that indicates an eagle, each predator requiring a different strategy of evasion. It has also been shown that birds and other primate species correctly interpreted the Diana monkey’s warning calls.

The extensive precise and accurate observation of body language, such as with primates, horses, dogs, and other social animals, has given us a better understanding of the inner workings of their worlds. Professor Rupert Sheldrake (Cambridge/Harvard), a bold and controversial researcher with over 80 technical papers published in scientific journals, has over 1,500 case studies of human/animal communication that may involve a level of transmission we are only beginning to explore.

An example of the kind of “invisible” (to humans) communication that animals use is seen at The Dolphin Institute at Kewalo Basin, a research center in Hawaii. After extensive training, these dolphins can be given the command “Tandem Create” – which means two dolphins instantly design a new trick, perform it together, in perfect sync with each other. How are they communicating this new information to each other?

A growing number of respected scientists are reporting examples of what appears to be animal “telepathy” or non-local communication, and a tremendous understanding of what their humans are experiencing and planning. Rupert Sheldrake reports that one Veterinarian’s office in England won’t take appointments for cats, because so many of them seem to know when their owners plan to go to the vet, and the cats disappear. This happens even without the owners giving any signs, such as retrieving the cat carrier.

Dutch primatologist and biologist Frans de Waal has explored and reported on both the scope and depth of animal intelligence, with research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, chimpanzees, bonobos and wasps, to name a few species. These studies show us how we have vastly underestimated animal intelligence and challenge us to re-examine how we define it. Instead of using human intelligence criteria to evaluate the animal mind, we need to enter their world and see the level of intelligence they have and use to navigate their world. Imagine if dogs were to analyze human intelligence based upon our weak sense of smell compared to theirs. They might conclude we are morons! much better than dog food.

Ayumu, a young male chimpanzee studied at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan, shows that this chimp is way ahead of humans in complex memory tests. The chimps also show that they can have a sense of time, and will voluntarily arrive on time at the research lab testing site, for a reward of a taste of honey. And what about squirrels who can recall the locations of hundreds of buried acorns? Or trained pigeons who can detect hairline fractures on x-rays with greater accuracy than teams of doctors? Or dogs who can detect cancer from saliva and breath samples? It is time to frame a new paradigm for understanding the potential of animals, in order to help us become better humans!

And then there is the question of Human Consciousness. Here is David Chalmers discussing the issue of how to understand consciousness.

Here are my Ten Points in Defense of the existence of Animal Consciousness:

1) Consciousness is Real (not an illusion)

It exists whether or not we humans are aware of it. (Humans can, however, have "illusionary experiences" of the nature of Consciousness.)

2) Consciousness is a Dynamic Field

It is not a static thing; rather it functions like a wavey field -- with both magnetic (attraction, cohesion) expression -- as well as dynamic, pulsing, disruptive energies.

The fact that we don't currently have mechanisms to measure it has no bearing on its existence. If Consciousness has a sense of humor, I am sure she would find our efforts to "reduce" it amusing.

3) Consciousness does not originate in the brain

It does not require a brain or a sophisticated brain to exist. Although consciousness can be partially experienced through a brain. Consciousness is to the brain what a car is to a human. It can be very helpful, but humans (and other animals) can move in additional ways.

4) Everything that is alive has Consciousness

Although the subjective experience will be different according to the being's nature.

5) Access to Consciousness exists on a continuum

Bee Consciousness is different from Elephant Consciousness, and different from Human Consciousness, etc.

6) Human Consciousness is neither superior nor inferior to animal consciousness

It is a different access code or frequency. Animals can have an enviable experience of Pure Consciousness, as they are not limited by language or concepts about it. This is one reason why it can be healing to be in their presence.

7) Language is not a prerequisite for Consciousness

Language can either support or interfere with consciousness, as in the example of humans denying or questioning it, or humans in varying degrees of Zombie-like lack of awareness.

8) Self-Awareness is not a prerequisite for the experience of Consciousness

But in humans, self-awareness may be a tool for access, such as the emotional carriers of the energy of -- Deep Truth, Love, Unity, Empathy, Joy, Awe, Beauty, Music, Peace and other doorways to a fuller experience of Consciousness.

9) Consciousness exists independently of our experience of it

Our awareness of consciousness fluctuates as "Being Conscious" is not a static state. Part of being human is to live with a continually fluctuating access to consciousness through all the variations in human awareness and thus experience.

Tapping into the Field of Consciousness has infinite benefits for humans. In the words of Carl Sagan, "For small creatures such as us, the vastness is bearable only through love."

Working Hypothesis:

10) Consciousness is Neutral.

This Scary Idea has to do with the Question of Intention. But I will say that Consciousness is affected by our intention. Intentionality, observation, matching with resonant frequencies, are ways that we can "Dance with Consciousness."

Have you read the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness? The scientists go on record that animals have consciousness. Take a look for yourself.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


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