Cognitive Neuroscience and Animal Consciousness

In Sofia Bonicalzi, Leonardo Caffo & Mattia Sorgon (eds.), Naturalism and Constructivism in Metaethics. Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press. pp. 182-203 (2014)
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The problem of animal consciousness has profound implications on our concept of nature and of our place in the natural world. In philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience the problem of animal consciousness raises two main questions (Velmans, 2007): the distribution question (“are there conscious animals beside humans?”) and the phenomenological question (“what is it like to be a non-human animal?”). In order to answer these questions, many approaches take into account similarities and dissimilarities in animal and human behavior, e.g. the use of language or tools and mirror self-recognition (Allen and Bekoff, 2007), however behavioral arguments don’t seem to be conclusive (Baars, 2005). Cognitive neuroscience is providing comparative data on structural and functional similarities, respectively called “homologies” and “analogies”. Many experimental results suggest that the thalamocortical system is essential for consciousness (Edelman and Tononi, 2000; Tononi, 2008). The argument from homology states that the general structure of thalamocortical system remained the same in the last 100-200 million years, for it is neuroanatomically similar in all the present and past mammals and it didn’t change much during phylogeny (Allen and Bekoff, 2007). The argument from analogy states that the key functional processes correlated with consciousness in humans are still present in all other mammals and many other animals (Baars, 2005). These processes are information integration through effective cortical connectivity (Massimini et al., 2005; Rosanova et al., 2012) and elaboration of information at a global level (Dehaene and Changeux, 2011). On this basis, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness states that all mammals, birds, and many other animals (such as octopuses) possess the neurological substrates of consciousness (Low et al., 2012). Conscious experience is private (Chalmers, 1995; Nagel, 1974) therefore the answer to the phenomenological question may be impossible. Nevertheless, cognitive neuroscience may provide an answer to the distribution question, showing that conscious experience is not limited to humans since it is a major biological adaptation going back millions of years.

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Matteo Grasso
University of Wisconsin, Madison


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