Animal consciousness refers to the experiences or conscious sensation during states of wakeful processing of sensory perception, imagery or dreaming in non-human subjects. The concept is often raised and discussed in relation to animal welfare in bio-industrial farming, animal experimentation for biomedical purposes, and animal rights. 

In recent years, there have been debates about whether animals, other than humans, have consciousness like we do. To look into the matter, we must first take a step back and understand what consciousness actually means.

A conscious being can be defined to be having subjective experiences of the world and its own body. If you are having a mental experience, you are conscious. We take “experience” to denote the conscious sensation during states of wakeful processing of sensory perception, imagery or dreaming. A motion sensor might be able to sense the environment, but it is probably not aware that it could do so. In clinical practice, states of consciousness are mainly probed by prompting patients to report events with accuracy, usually by verbal expression. A physician would ask patients whether they feel a touch to the skin, hear a particular tone or see a stimulus presented on a screen for example. 

Obviously, since non-human subjects cannot verbally report their experiences, there are very limited neurological methods that can fully study how their mental processes work. Scientists can only describe what they’re able to do, but not explicitly anything of their minds. If we conclude however, that animals do not have consciousness just because of the absence of their verbal report, would we say the same about preverbal infants and patients in a minimally conscious state?

By observing animal behaviour, we can see that they react to the environment too: fight, flight, or curiosity. If we watch mammals or even birds, we will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when they are in danger. They relax when the environment is calm. In their behaviour, birds appear to offer neurophysiology and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. There is evidence of near-human-like levels of consciousness observed in African grey parrots. With their incredible intricacies of behaviour, vast ranges of personalities, and the display of play, sleep, fear, and love, it is logical to say that animals possess consciousness the way humans do. 

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Professor Cartmil made a compelling case about consciousness with a concept as simple as “sleeping” in his article Do Horses Gallop in Their Sleep? Consciousness depletes something in the waking brain, and we cannot keep it up indefinitely. If we stay up and force ourselves to be conscious, we soon start manifesting pathological symptoms, starting with irritability and proceeding through fainting and hallucinations to metabolic collapse and death. The need to sleep is thus not imposed upon us by our environment, but by the needs of the brain itself. If sleeping serves to restore what is depleted by our consciousness, it is reasonable to think that animals that have to sleep are conscious when they are awake. The natural inference is that the waking state in animals is also something like ours.

Not only that, animals also possess a special emotion that many people think only humans show – empathy. In one of the many documented stories of elephants accompanying people, an old woman got lost because she could not see well. She was found the next day with elephants guarding her, encasing her in a cage of branches to protect her from hyenas. One ecologist even witnessed a humpback whale sweeping a seal out of the water and onto its fin to keep it away from nearby killer whales. Though incidents like these seem extraordinary to us because we have only recently documented them, animals have probably been doing these things for millions of years.

The study of animal consciousness has tremendous implications on animal sentience in relation to animal welfare in bio-industrial farming, in procedures for ritual slaughter for example; animal experimentation for biomedical purposes, and also in domestic pet keeping.

It also gives rise to the interesting question of whether machines have a level of sentience or consciousness, and ipso facto may be entitled to certain rights and moral status, given that Artificial Intelligence is developing at such a rapid speed that supra-human performance can be claimed in many areas through self-play. 

Must different species be treated differently depending on their display of moral traits, their history of altruistic deeds, their ability to experience and show emotion, and their specific level of consciousness? Must we have a bill of animal rights in place that can guide us in what is proper and lawful conduct in relation to specific species? How will this impact our diets and dependence on certain animals for food security? And at what level can ethics come into play? These are just some of the many questions researchers and policymakers, with further research, will be able to address in time. 

Featured image by: Pxfuel