Are Animals Conscious?

Animals commonly look as though they have emotions, intentions, plans, and reactions...things we humans associate with thoughts and consciousness. However, as we have seen earlier in this chapter, such speculations can lead us astray. How much can we read into animal behavior, before we start to make mistakes like the comparative psychologists of the 1880s?

What can we "say with assurance" about animal awareness?

There is one thing we can say with assurance: animals do not think in words. This by itself means that cats and dogs and horses do not possess anything quite like human intelligence or reflective self-consciousness. Animal awareness, whatever it is like, must be more immediate and reactive. Humans grasp thoughts and manipulate them like hand tools, using symbol systems. Animals must live more "in the moment," with awareness that is dependent upon immediate stimulation.

One of my children asked me, after we moved from one house to another, whether our cat "remembered the old house." I replied that we have good evidence that cats dream, so our cat might dream about the old house. If she was brought back to the old house, she would remember it and know how to navigate around it. But I also explained that cat's do not have language, so the cat never thinks, "I wonder what is going on at the old house" or "I miss the old house." Human awareness is so dominated by language that it is difficult for children (or adults) to appreciate how very different our consciousness would be if we totally lacked language of any type. Our ability to use language helps us remember the past, by preserving a symbolic code that can be used to stimulate our mental process and simulate previous experiences. Animals cannot do this.

Probably the closest we get to the consciousness of an alinguistic creature (i.e. a non-human animal) is in the moment after awakening to an alarm clock when our brain is not yet fully functioning. We nevertheless see our environment and react well enough to get out of bed, perform basic body functions, and start our day. But for that moment we may experience consciousness without the characteristic inner chatter of humans. During that time our consciousness is very direct and sensory-oriented, and we may greet a friendly dog or cat more or less as alinguistic equals.

What part of the brain is relatively large in most mammals?

It is probably fair to assume that non-human animals have a sort of non-linguistic consciousness. This seems obvious to many pet owners and people well acquainted with species like horses that interact intelligently with humans.

Most mammals have limbic systems that rival the size of human limbic systems, in proportion to their brains, and the limbic system is the seat of emotion. With experience, it is easy to get to know and understand the emotions of almost any mammalian species. Sociable birds such as parrots and penguins also seem remarkably transparent in their feelings and motives, to people who know them well. However, humans are notoriously prone to anthropomorphizing (projecting human qualitiies into non-humans), and to say that animal awarenes is "obvious" or "transparent" is not to make a scientific argument. Therefore, any sort of objective measure that sheds a light on animal cognition is especially valued by research psychologists.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey