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Is Consciousness Unique to Humans?

Some claim that consciousness is everywhere, even in rocks.

Source: PollyDot/Pixabay

Despite their elegant descriptions of animal behavior, I am not sanguine about the effort of some scholars to extend consciousness to lower animals like insects. One example of such efforts is found in "Expanding Consciousness" by professors Chittka and Wilson in the recent issue of American Scientist. They rightfully, I think, reject the possibility of consciousness in plants and inanimate objects, because these have no agency; that is, they can’t move around and do things.

But the possession of agency is no assurance of consciousness. Almost all animals exhibit agency, but how can we know that any non-human species are conscious? In fact, many scholars are still debating the definition of consciousness, and nobody I know presumes to explain how the brain generates consciousness.

The authors seem to confuse being awake with being conscious. We, humans, are only conscious of those things to which our brain attends, a well-documented phenomenon captured by the phrase “inattentional blindness.” If you need convincing, see the classic video on YouTube where a gorilla walks through a basketball game, and about one-third of the viewers fail to see it.

Every consciousness theorist has the problem of finding a good definition of consciousness. There is a solipsistic view that consciousness is the only reality, that what we think we experience of the world is an illusion created by consciousness. Few scientists take this view seriously, because there is no evidence for this view.

Chittka and Wilson define consciousness as a kind of thinking that allows avoidance of trial and error. That is not a sufficient definition. A chain of stimuli can drive a chain of stereotyped behavioral elements that produce adaptive behavior without the need for trial and error. I have even published research on such behavior, the “flehmen” (or lip-curl) sexual behavior of bulls, stallions, and males of certain other species.

Chittka and Wilson use the loaded term “evaluate” to say that is how bees plan the construction of a hive and communicate to each other what to do. The claim is that they must be conscious, because hive-building is not hardwired, but has to be learned. However, learning is also not an adequate criterion for consciousness: Computerized neural networks can learn, and few people would say that computers are conscious beings.

Then, the authors argue that "self-recognition" is a signature of consciousness. But "recognition" is not the same as self-awareness. We, humans, have our body mapped in the sensory and motor cortices, and the location of our body in space is mapped in the hippocampus-entorhinal cortex. But these mappings can operate unconsciously.

All of the behaviors of bees, flies, and lower animals to which the authors ascribe consciousness can be performed unconsciously as the nervous system reflexively responds to environmental stimuli and feedback cues. Their use of descriptive words such as "foresight, anticipation, communication, optimism/pessimism, appreciation, picture (in the mind's eye)" are loaded anthropomorphic words used to assume consciousness. The proof is lacking.

Finally, the authors say that neural correlates of consciousness have not been identified in humans, but when they are, then finding those correlates in lower animals would confirm that those species are conscious. No, sorry, correlation is not the same as causation. Moreover, some correlates of consciousness have been identified, as I describe in my book, Mental Biology.

Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frisch won the Nobel Prize in 1973 for showing that lower animals (including bees) can perform highly complex behaviors in an automated way, without the need for conscious "evaluation, foresight, anticipation,” and so on. These founders of modern animal behavior should not be dismissed by assigning consciousness to other species until we discover more about the neural mechanisms of consciousness and whether a given species has the neural resources to generate those mechanisms.