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I'm an artist turned beekeeper who practices natural, treatment-free beekeeping. I'm on a mission to help new beekeepers succeed and educate the public about the magic of bees! Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. Email Address. Search for: Search. Buy My Book: Queenspotting. Now Streaming Online! Each of these feel a certain way to us, and they feel like something for the dog too.
If that is right, then dogs are conscious, at least in the minimal sense.
Consciousness is sometimes used to refer to a much more complicated capacity: the ability to self-reflect. That is a rare achievement. Humans may well be the only animals that can become aware that they are aware. Even then, we are mostly just conscious in the more minimal sense, rarely pausing for true self-reflection. The consciousness of others is a thorny philosophical problem.
Our typical handle on consciousness is through observing behaviour. We think babies and dogs feel hungry, in part because they act like we do when we feel hungry. We might say that a bee is angry when we disturb its hive. An emerging approach to animal consciousness offers a way forward.
- The structure of consciousness.
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Rather than moving from behaviour back to experience, this new approach moves directly to the neural underpinnings of consciousness. Even if insect behaviour is very unlike our own, there might be important similarities between their brains and ours. On this new approach, we can thus ask whether the insect brain has the structures that could support a basic capacity for any form of consciousness.
The midbrain is the evolutionarily ancient neural core that our enormous neocortex surrounds like a thick rind. Self-awareness requires our evolutionarily young neocortex, but awareness is supported by the simpler and evolutionarily much older midbrain. Why is the midbrain so important?
Once animals started moving around in their environment, they had to decide where to go next. Deciding efficiently requires combining many different sources of information into a single neural model with a single perspective on the world.
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Tying together knowledge, desire and perception in this integration is the start of a first-person perspective on the world, and thus the origin of conscious experience. While insect brains are minute — the largest are far smaller than a grain of rice — new research has shown that they perform the same ancient functions as the human midbrain. The insect central complex ties together memory, homeostatic needs and perception in the same integrated way. This integration has the same function as well: to enable effective action selection.
In the bee, this detailed representation of the animal in space is what allows it to perform remarkable feats of navigation.
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Thus, while insect brains and human brains could not look more different, they have structures that do the same thing, for the same reason and so support the same kind of first-person perspective. That is strong reason to think that insects and other invertebrates are conscious.
Their experience of the world is not as rich or as detailed as our experience — our big neocortex adds something to life! But it still feels like something to be a bee. If this argument is correct, studying insects is a powerful way to study basic forms of consciousness. The honeybee brain has less than a million neurons, which is roughly five orders of magnitude fewer than a human. That is a lot easier to study. Completely mapping the insect nervous system is within the realm of current technology. Several labs are already working on it.