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Insect Brain Capable of Conscious Subjective Experiences

Fascinating research shows the range of animal consciousness is very broad

If insects could talk to us what would they tell us about consciousness?

I love receiving information about what some might call "surprising" scientific discoveries. A recent essay called "If insects have consciousness, what then?" by renowned philosopher Peter Singer came across my screen and I am thrilled that it did. I also wrote about this topic in "What Does It Feel Like to Be a Honeybee?"

Numerous researchers and non-researchers are interested in the evolution of consciousness and want to know the taxonomic range among nonhuman animals (animals). While a few scientists and others still wonder if other animals really are conscious, the consensus is that they are and that the important and most interesting question at hand is not if they are conscious but rather why consciousness has evolved (please see for example, "Scientists Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings" and other essays about The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness).

Even among those who are willing to grant some form(s) of consciousness to mammals and other vertebrates, many stop short of attributing consciousness and subjective experiences to invertebrates. But this might be a very narrow view of the taxonomic range of consciousness in nonhumans. In the essay mentioned above, Dr. Singer writes, "Insects have a central ganglion that, like a mammalian midbrain, is involved in processing sensory information, selecting targets and directing action. It may also provide a capacity for subjective experience." He relies on an essay by Drs. Andrew Barron and Colin Klein called "What insects can tell us about the origins of consciousness" published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The abstract for this groundbreaking essay reads:

How, why, and when consciousness evolved remain hotly debated topics. Addressing these issues requires considering the distribution of consciousness across the animal phylogenetic tree. Here we propose that at least one invertebrate clade, the insects, has a capacity for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience. In vertebrates the capacity for subjective experience is supported by integrated structures in the midbrain that create a neural simulation of the state of the mobile animal in space. This integrated and egocentric representation of the world from the animal’s perspective is sufficient for subjective experience. Structures in the insect brain perform analogous functions. Therefore, we argue the insect brain also supports a capacity for subjective experience. In both vertebrates and insects this form of behavioral control system evolved as an efficient solution to basic problems of sensory reafference and true navigation. The brain structures that support subjective experience in vertebrates and insects are very different from each other, but in both cases they are basal to each clade. Hence we propose the origins of subjective experience can be traced to the Cambrian. (my emphasis)

So, just when we think we know it all, along comes a serious discussion about the evolution of consciousness that should motivate us all to reconsider just who is conscious and why it has evolved. And, of course, the question also arises what should we do with this information in terms of how we treat them. If insects could talk to us they just might be saying treat us with more respect and stop harming and killing us, by the countless billions.

Please stay tuned for more on this fascinating and very important topic. While we are unique in certain ways, it's becoming clearer that we are not the only conscious beings and that many other animals share the capacity for subjective experiences.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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