Comparing Animal and Human Consciousness can Animals Convey Conscious Experience

The field of consciousness currently houses an ongoing debate as to whether animals experience consciousness comparable to that of human beings. Research suggests that animals are sentient. However, it is necessary that we do not equate sentience with all aspects of consciousness. Consciousness covers a broad range of states, ranging from sensations (i.e. touch) to reflecting on the future, where as “sentience” specifically refers to ability to experience feelings (Dawkins, 2006). A better distinction between the terms can be achieved when looking at “phenomenal consciousness” and “access consciousness” (Block, 1991 as cited in Dawkins, 2006). The former refers to qualia or “raw feels” such as pain, while the latter can be defined as more complex experiences of being able to reflect on mental states (Dawkins, 2006). More succinctly, sentience encompasses the ability to experience phenomenal consciousness and or “basic consciousness”. Many researchers assume that evidence demonstrating cognitive abilities and emotionality in animals, is affirmation of sentience. Ultimately, these researchers believe that the presence of cognitive capabilities and emotionality is sufficient to equate animal consciousness with that of human beings. However, skeptics are weary of labeling this evidence as definitive. The purpose of this paper is to present various literature examining the comparability of consciousness amongst animals and humans, and ultimately propose that animals, like humans, maintain a simplistic form of consciousness, in other words “phenomenal consciousness”; further, through communicative techniques an animal’s subjective consciousness may be demonstrated.

Dawkins (2006), adopted an unbiased approach in examining the concept of animal consciousness. Dawkins acknowledged the notion that animals are conscious in the most primitive sense of the term; yet, whether or not they experience a higher level consciousness “access consciousness”, he posits, is still unknown. Dawkins effectively put forth evidence which suggested animals are capable of intellectual feats. An experiment was discussed called the “odd-one-out” in which rats are exposed to three doors, one of which is visually different from the others and contains food behind it. The results demonstrated that even as the placement as well as the visual pattern of the door changed, the rat would consistently choose the odd door and achieve the reward (Dawkins, 2006). Dawkins notes that the solving of this higher level task may be taken as evidence of abstract conceptualizations in animals and thus evidence for higher level consciousness comparable to humans.
However, skeptics posit that animals may just learn the methods in terms of simple rules associated with solving cognitive tasks, comparable to those inputted into computers, and not actually develop the ability to think in abstract terms (Dawkins, 2006). In other words, what appears to be higher level cognitive processing may actually be cleverness.

Further, Dawkins notes that researchers often regard the physiological and behavioural changes that accompany pain as evidence of sentience. Many people regard the similarities in reactions to pain amidst animals and humans as confirmation for similar consciousness. Once again, skeptics suggest that animals may not actually experience emotions as humans do, but rather behave in an emotional fashion. In other words, it may be advocated that these animals have pain fibers that are activated, and as a result of this activation, respond to pain in pre-programmed ways (i.e. seeking methods to reduce it) (Dawkins, 2006). In effect, pain is not brought into consciousness.

Panksapp (2004) examined three modes of consciousness that are unique to humans in an attempt to apply them to animals. The three types of consciousness examined included primary-process consciousness, secondary-process consciousness, and tertiary-process consciousness. Primary-process consciousness refers to raw sensory/perceptual feelings, secondary-process consciousness signifies thoughts about this primary level consciousness, and finally tertiary-process consciousness is thoughts about thoughts, or an awareness of awareness (Panksapp, 2004). He argued that “primary-process-affective consciousness” seems to be an unconditional gift of nature, instead of an acquired skill. Further, he suggests that this form of consciousness is homologous amongst humans and animals.

Panksapp acknowledged that many researchers posit that emotional experiences associated with pain are non-existent in animals; but, he suggests that this assumption neglects the vast amounts of behavioural data demonstrating the ability of primitive brain systems in generating pain and raw emotional experiences (2004). Conclusively, Panksapp’s research supports the idea that at the very least, animals maintain phenomenal consciousness (affective state).

Rogers (1997), in her book “Minds of their Own”, suggested that there is no structure in the brain that is totally unique to humans. Additionally, it is proposed that some forms of communication in animals, share some aspects of human language; but, despite this, animal language is not nearly as complex as human language. Although, she concedes that this may be the case only because humans know so little about animal communication (Rogers, 1997). The contention that animals and humans share aspects of language not only demonstrates that animals are conscious, but suggests the possibility that aspects of consciousness may also correspond between the two beings. Another interesting point she makes is with regards to animal intelligence. It is imperative to note that for animals, the term cognition is used synonymously with intelligence (Rogers, 1997). Intelligence is referred to as behaviour that is generated by higher cognition. In other words, complex cognition produces intelligent behaviour. Nonetheless, just as Dawkins (2006) suggested, animal behaviour may not be reflective of intelligence so much as it is reflective of cleverness (Rogers, 1997). She concluded her argument by stating that being intelligent is definitely a basis for consciousness, but does not prove that consciousness is present (Rogers, 1997). It is also stated that humans are often too inclined to attribute to animals more complex cognition than is actually deserved, and though they may be clever, this is not representative of human-like consciousness (Humphrey, 1976 as cited in Rogers,1997).

Additionally, Damasio (2000) as cited in Griffin and Speck (2004), discusses the concept of “core consciousness” which provides an organism with an awareness of here and now (phenomenal consciousness), but does not provide information about the past or future. Damasio stated that this core consciousness is not unique to just humans, as it is evident in some non-humans. This research once again supports the notion that animals experience basic consciousness.

This purpose of this article was to examine some of the literature surrounding the notion of animal consciousness as compared to that of humans. Judging by the aforementioned literature it seems plausible that animals do indeed maintain consciousness in the most basic sense. As supported by the research of Panksapp (2004), primary-process consciousness, which refers to raw sensory / perceptual feelings, is seemingly present within both animals and humans. It seems logical based on the research that both animals and humans are born with the physiological make up to generate affective states, and moreover maintain the capability to experience these affective states. Still, where animals and humans differ with respect to consciousness, is in terms of the higher level consciousness (access consciousness or second and tertiary process consciousness) which allows for the feeling agent to actually reflect on the emotional state, or more concisely, transport the emotion into consciousness.

Although, there is evidence indicative of higher level cognitive processing, similar to that of humans (Dawkins, 2006), there is no real way of knowing whether this evidence is definitive. The ability of animals to exercise “intelligence” as defined by Rogers (1997), may not be reflective of abstract conceptualizations or higher order mental processing, but rather “cleverness”, in the form of a learned methodology. In light of this fact, it would be presumptuous to assume that animals utilize a higher level consciousness in the form of “complex cognition” similar to that of humans.

An additional proposal of this article was in regards to the ability of animals to utilize communicative techniques to demonstrate subjective consciousness. The impetus for this proposition arose from the contention put forth by Paul, Harding, and Mendl (2005), which states that an animal’s subjective conscious experience cannot be directly measured. Let me begin with the ideology held by many researchers that language is the key to human consciousness, in that human consciousness is an illusion created by language (Blackmore, 2004). If this is the case, then all non-humans can ever be conscious in the truest sense. I strongly disagree with this notion, and stand firmly grounded in the belief that though humans maintain a unique language, animals nonetheless utilize a language system of their own. Whether or not the language system employed by animals, is of a lesser complexity, will never be positively known. It is this system which allows for the demonstration of subjective consciousness in animals.

Griffin and Speck (2004) suggested that animals utilize modes of communication, which can be used to report subjective conscious experience. Specifically, they are referring to gestures and movements that can be made with deliberate intention to communicate (Griffin & Speck, 2004). Moreover, research on eastern kingbirds demonstrates a language system that embodies two things: first, the information within the language is always personal and never about the external world, reflecting the “egocentric principle”, and second the language always relates to the inner state of the bird (Smith, 1963, as cited in Radner & Radner, 1989). This above mentioned research signifies the ability of the animal to communicate affective states. Essentially, the animal is able to convey subjective conscious experience.

In concluding, this article has examined the literature surrounding the concept of comparability amid animal and human consciousness, and further has postulated that animals maintain at least phenomenal consciousness. Moreover, this paper hypothesizes that animal’s utilization of communicative techniques can give way to information regarding conscious experience. All in all, humans and animals unite on one point as stated by Damasio (2000), this being that both species have “core consciousness”. However, where humans and animals differ is in terms of higher level consciousness, such as that reflected by the human capability to reflect on awareness (access consciousness). Though animals may exhibit the ability to solve complex tasks, this is not definitive evidence for higher level consciousness (abstract conceptualizations), for it may be purely learned methodology (cleverness). As Rogers (2000) states, being intelligent is a basis for consciousness; yet, it does not prove consciousness is present.

In addition, the physiological and behavioural changes associated with emotional affect are not necessarily a reliable indicator of emotional experience (Dawkins, 2006). Therefore, whereas humans can transport the feelings associated with emotions into their stream of consciousness animals may be unable to do so. Finally, based on previous research, it seems plausible that animals are able to utilize their specific language system to transmit messages regarding their subjective conscious experience. Although, it is likely that this expression of conscious experience is limited purely to states of affect.

Animal consciousness is without a doubt a perplexing field of study. It is interesting to note that greater similarity between animal and human consciousness would pave the way for greater moral and ethic consideration regarding the treatment of animals. Still, it is necessary that the hard problem (e.g. how do physical properties give way to a subjective state?) is deciphered, before we can delve into the facet and solve the mysteries of animal consciousness with great assurance.