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The Consciousness of Animals

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posted on Jul, 18 2015 @ 07:51 PM
Right now I'm reading Joseph Ledoux's "Anxious", with the amusing subtitle "Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety" - it's amusing because, as we learn in the preface, Ledoux - neurosciences "William James" - simply wanted to write a book that contained his beliefs without it being edited by other neuroscientists (this being the process of how textbooks are written). This book really is a compendium of Ledoux's latest views on the operation of fear and anxiety in the human nervous system, and, of course, consciousness. The subtitle is nothing more than a publishers trick to make the book seem like a regular self-help book, no doubt a group that is easily taken in by book covers and the way they're subtitled.

Anxious is so far a really great book - intensely interesting, but also irritating at parts, at least for me. Ledoux is a neuroscience who subscribes to whats called the "James-Lang theory" of emotional functioning: he believes that feelings only exist when a self-conscious being can label it and know it as an "emotion". He also conflates, seemingly with any awareness, feeling and emotion, treating the latter as involving the former but given meaning/relevance by the conscious reflection of ones feeling state.

I'm more influenced by the views of Jaak Panksepp. While Ledoux leaves the question of animal emotions "open", that is, he basically operates as if they're just defense-reaction, input/output systems with a questionable degree of consciousness, Panksepp conceptualizes animal minds as being composed of feeling images, or percepts, that gives the animals mind a direct connection with it's environmental reality in a feeling way.

Ledoux isn't convinced by Panksepps conflation of molecular functioning in lower mammals (rats, mice) or even higher mammals (primates); he doesn't think Panksepps extension of a feeling mind into animals is justified by the presence of the same molecules. I, on the other hand, think Panksepps identification of feeling states with molecules, such as endorphins with pleasure and a sense of safety, dopamine with a feeling of interest and anticipation, serotonin with a feeling of control or oxytocin with a feeling of confidence in ones social engagements, I think this makes a whole lot of sense.

So why the difference? To be honest. I just think Panksepps feels more. I think people like Joseph Ledoux have something "glassy" about them. Sort of removed, valorizing logical distance as the smartest way to be, assuming that the world is more objective from this perspective, they think their judgements actually do represent an objective take on reality: or at least more objective than yours.

Panksepp, like me, can't help but look at an animal, say, my dog, and see in it's behavior a mind that is acting, living, being, and yes, experiencing the world, albeit, while also being organized from "within" by inter-cellular processes that maintain the organisms homeostasis.

There are always two levels when one pays attentions and notices the physiological and cellular dynamics that maintain life: they are 'doing things' that they have been doing since life began. Before we ever arrived, these cells were maintaining and evolving new types of life. We are, in a sense, "riding the waves" of a process that precedes our existence. And yet when we come, the world is experienced self-consciously. Amazing, no doubt. But how or why is it that Ledoux looks at animals and wants to demarcate biological adaptive processes like "defensive response systems" from what we call "emotion" i.e. experienced subjectively; how is it Ledoux can look at an animal, like a dog, or even the mice he regularly works on, and think those eyes don't contain a unconscious "knowing" of the world: in short, the SPIRIT, the life force that interacts and feels pleasure, and yes, fear and anxiety when afraid. I cannot look at any animal and pretend that there is no inner part feeling the world; yet for Ledoux, who seems rather dissociated from the feeling dimension of non-human animals, animals seem more like machines than living, experiencing creatures.

Of course, it should go without mentioning that the brain of a dog is drastically different from our brain. We know that everything about a brain reflects something about the intervening consciousness. If we look at a dogs brain, because we look with a human brain, it becomes veritably unimaginable to know just what its like for them. Still, our imagination compels us to observe their behavior and simulate some world within that dog which is feeling, and also sensing, psychologically, and pursuing interests.

There is something called the mirror test. Since my washroom is being painted, the mirror is currently on the floor, leaned against a wall. Seeing my dog lying down, I got on my knees and went to the mirror, knowing full well that she would take this as a sign to play with me. When she got to the mirror, I pulled her down - and shes very excited at this point - and tried to hold her head towards the mirror. I try calming her, "maggy, calm down, I'm just playing"", although I know this intensely irritating for her, it's not that bad, and I'm very curious to know if I can hold her face to the mirror, what exactly would happen.

Initially, of course, dogs do not pass the mirror test. They do not look in the mirror and so they do not understand that they are physical object in the world that other creatures can perceive. This is object consciousness - which implies self-consciousness, inasmuch as knowing yourself as a physical object implies that you are also aware of yourself as an agent in the world. Apes pass it. Elephants pass it and so do dolphins and whales.

What I found interesting was a moment where Maggy seems to relax, actually looks into the mirror, and seems to notice, at least from my perspective, the existence of an object - HERSELF - in the mirror.

I know to many people this may seem grossly unscientific, but is it really? If evolution is change, and change, now with what we know about the way environment influences genes through epigenetics, is endemic at all levels, why wouldn't a situation like this - dog being forced to visually perceive itself in the mirror, wouldn't it be interesting to know, or at least perceive, a moment where the dog pays more attention to the mirror, and seems, ephemerally, to pay attention to mirror with attentiveness that it didn't before.

Attentiveness, as all neuroscientists know, is a medium for experience dependent neuroplasticity. At a moment like this, the dogs frontal lobes are being confronted by an image of itself. Is there any particular hardware within the dogs brain, knowing how socially conscious it already is, that might be able to mediate some 'level' of consciousness that isn't normally present?

My view is a gradational view. Ledoux makes a distinction between human and animal minds that leaves consciousness - of our type - to be either "existing" or "not-existing". Subjective experience is only causal for humans. It is not causal for the animal.

Yet in the little experiment I conducted with my dog, it's plausible to think that a forced perception of itself in the mirror may in fact "draw consciousness" into the dogs experience of itself as a separate agent. This is, after all, how evolution operates: through physiological and preexisting organic conditions, consciousness is made.

posted on Jul, 18 2015 @ 09:41 PM
If I'm following, I think that you're right. There is a "transcendent moment" of shifted perspective that we're aware of, say, by thinking on a problem for a time and suddenly arriving at a solution, similarly to a dog realizing an illusion is not real, like your mirror experiment.

My little evolving layman's theory is that consciousness can be found in the way that living creatures input the data of their environments.
I've heard it said that humans only input about 10% of the visual data actually picked up by our eyes; the rest is a layered mishmash of cross referenced memories, associations, beliefs and emotional processes; our reality is heavily filtered, but it's biologically practical because we don't have to analyze the minutia of everything we perceive all of the time (and if we did so, we'd be frozen, having a hard time doing what we do on a strictly conscious level).
But I propose that other animals, like dogs or cats exist in a state of significantly less filtering...say, they fully perceive 75% of what their senses relay. Practical for them, because even domesticated, a dog or cat lives in much greater danger of their environment and as hunters without access to tools or traps, they need stimulus to best take advantage of their environments.

Roll a ball behind an object and a human, being of weaker senses and a more abstract interpretation of reality, will "see" the ball come to rest even though it's out of sight.
Roll a ball behind the same object and a dog will see the ball go, but unless the ball makes a noise or other physical indication of where it's gone, the dog will be uncertain about what's happened, unless it investigates, or it's seen this happen an dozen times and then shares with us the ability to "see" what is only imagined.

Anyway, forgive my ramble...excellent post on a subject I love thinking about.

posted on Jul, 18 2015 @ 10:20 PM
Yeah, I think Ledoux while somewhat accurate in is human philosophy, makes a blatant mistake by dismissing the conscious awareness of animals. There are a endless examples of this awareness in the animal kingdom... Just the other day I came across a story of a gorilla that after it was taught sign language, it told the story of his mother being killed (by humans) and the day he was captured. The story of Christian the lion is another great example, a lion cub raised in a london basement until adulthood was successfully reintroduced into the wild. Nearly three years later his former owners returned in hope to spot or maybe make contact with Christian. The lion spotted them ran towards them, jumped on them like a long lost dog in a shear display of affection. Immediately after this reunion, the lion retreats and returns with two naturally wild lionesses and an adopted cub, he then introduces them to his former owners. The wild lions show no caution or threat and allow the owners to make contact and pet them. I could go on and on, the examples are endless.

Great thread.

edit on 18-7-2015 by rexsblues because: (no reason given)

posted on Jul, 18 2015 @ 10:23 PM
I treat my dogs like a mute person. They express themselves clearly with that in mind. Funny thing yesterday, I asked my dog if she was ~sleepy~ and she yawned. I use the expression when were ready for bed, but still think it's interesting to get a reaction from such a intangible concept.

posted on Jul, 18 2015 @ 10:40 PM

originally posted by: FlyingFox
I treat my dogs like a mute person. They express themselves clearly with that in mind. Funny thing yesterday, I asked my dog if she was ~sleepy~ and she yawned. I use the expression when were ready for bed, but still think it's interesting to get a reaction from such a intangible concept.

When I saw a film of a male dolphin courting a female one, he gave her a bouquet of sea weed , she started flirting, and then after a period of getting to know each other they made out. It was empathy, Humans seem to think that they are the only intelligent life , this might have skewed our thought processes, to our own detriment, because our decisions don't contain the full story. I'm sure animal consciousness is a valid as ours, and they just play at being dumb.

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