Archive for the ‘consciousness’ Category

Do fish and crustaceans feel pain?

January 17, 2013

Don’t eat me! (photo by Rafael Ortega Diaz)

It would be amazing if we could put ourselves inside the minds of other animals – do they think, feel and reason like we do? Or are they little more than glorified robots? Or something in between? At the moment, we don’t know much. It’s impossible to experience the consciousness of another human, let along another species – and extremely hard to figure out what other species ‘feel’.

This problem was not conveyed very well by last week’s ‘news’ that ‘fish don’t feel pain’. This was actually based on a review article – not on new evidence – which only concluded that ‘fishes are unlikely to feel pain’. Not quite the same as saying they definitively don’t (something that would be impossible to prove, anyway). There’s an interesting analysis of the review on the Practical Fishkeeping website that disputes the review’s conclusion, with help from an expert in the field.

What really didn’t come across from the media coverage is how difficult it is to draw any conclusions at all about what fish actually feel. The arguments can go either way – if fish recoil from painful stimuli, does this mean they consciously feel pain, or that they are unconsciously and ‘instinctively’ removing themselves from danger?

Luckily, another news story this week – about pain in crustaceans – shows how a cleverly designed experiment can shed a bit more light on a tricky subject like this. The study showed that crabs can learn to avoid electric shocks, going to the extreme of leaving shelter and venturing out into the open – something they’re not normally keen to do. (more…)

Animal consciousness – no evidence of absence?

August 24, 2012

What is it like to be a bat?

Animal behaviour is a strange area of science. Although research into genetics and evolution has shown that we are just another species of mammal, there’s still reluctance to give other animals the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like consciousness. Of course, consciousness is incredibly hard to study (especially because it’s pretty much impossible to define) – but it’s always seemed logical to me to assume that animals similar to humans are likely to have similar types of consciousness.

Scientists aren’t in the business of relying on assumptions. But in the past many have seemed willing to assume that animals are guilty of unconsciousness until proven otherwise. Why that way round, and not vice versa? Why struggle for tortuous explanations of how some animals can make tools to solve complex problems, without being conscious of what they’re doing?

So I was excited to see that a group of neuroscientists have declared their belief that consciousness is unlikely to be unique to humans, at the first Francis Crick Memorial Conference. As the website explains (rather poetically) ‘Until animals have their own storytellers, humans will always have the most glorious part of the story, and with this proverbial concept in mind, the symposium will address the notion that humans do not alone possess the neurological faculties that constitute consciousness as it is presently understood.’ (more…)