Those of us who spend time with animals have no trouble believing that they have emotions and are aware of ours. The scientific community has recently joined us. “An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are…” (1) Consciousness is defined as “…the ability to feel something, anything — whether it’s the sensation of an azure-blue sky, a tooth ache, being sad, or worrying about the deadline two weeks from now.” (2)
Apparently what had kept scientists from agreeing with us was their belief that consciousness could only arise in a part of the brain that humans have and other animals don’t. The ability to speak and to self-reflect were also considered evidence of consciousness. More recent research has shown, though, that areas of the brain that many species have along with humans are involved in emotional experience. “Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots… Magpies in particular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition.” (3) Even animals quite remote from humans from an evolutionary perspective such as octopi are considered to be conscious.
The day after I learned of The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, my mentor Joe told me a story that clearly illustrates that our ponies are conscious. One day shortly after Joe’s wife June had had a stroke, they had gone to see the ponies. Joe went off to check on a pregnant mare, leaving June at the gate. When Joe next looked around, June, who was supporting herself with two sticks, had walked into the pasture to the ponies. Joe was frightened at first, but then he watched as their pony Heltondale Gayle immediately began walking towards June. Gayle moved in right next to June, and Joe watched June take hold of Gayle’s halter with one hand. Gayle then escorted June all the way to the gate, walking slowly and steadily, as June supported herself via the pony and one stick. How did Gayle know what June needed? Certainly it was because she is a conscious being. It’s nice to know that scientists are catching up.
1) Dvorsky, George. “Animals are as with it as Humans, Scientists Say”, http://news.discovery.com/animals/animals-consciousness-mammals-birds-octopus-120824.html, 8/24/12
2) Koch, Christof, “Consciousness is Everywhere,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christof-koch/consciousness-is-everywhere_b_1784047.html, 8/15/12.
3) Same as #1.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012