Thousands of animal species can be conscious

Human or animal, consciousness is still a mysterious world. It is one thing to know that we are endowed with intelligence, it is another to identify which brain mechanisms lead to conscious experience. But being able to deconstruct how this happens, and how we are aware that we are conscious, is another matter.

In June of this year, during the 26th session of the annual conference of the Association for Scientific Studies of Consciousness (ASSC), the two main hypotheses that divide scientists regarding the way consciousness is generated in the brain were discussed.

One is the Integrated Information Model (IIT) and the other is the Global Neural Workspace Model (GWNT). If the first defends that conscious activity is generated at the back of the brain, in the sensory areas, particularly in the visual cortex, the second believes that consciousness arises in the frontal zone, where the prefrontal cortex is located, considered the executive center. of the brain.

Although neither the IIT nor the GWNT have yet been able to determine the minimum number of neuronal mechanisms necessary for a perception of consciousness to exist, some specialists present at the event defended how certain animals can have sufficiently developed brains for one of the two to occur. models.

Oryan Zacks of Tel Aviv University studies vertebrate phylogeny and neuroanatomy. Together with his team, he concluded that the ancestor of all jawed vertebrates, which lived more than 400 million years ago, had a brain that could support the neuronal architecture required by the GWNT model.

If it turns out that consciousness forms according to this model, such a conclusion would bring about 60,000 modern species, including mammals, lizards, amphibians and most fish, into the field of consciousness.

The research of Peter Godfrey-Smith, from the University of Sydney, on cephalopods (such as octopuses and squids), suggests that consciousness evolved not only in the evolutionary line of vertebrates – ours – but, analogously, in another line evolutionary process that split off from that of mammals millions of years ago.

For her part, Daria Zakharova, from the London School of Economics, defended consciousness in a type of hunting spider called Portia. The specialist’s investigation suggests that such animals, endowed with good vision, have the ability to plan in advance the attack on prey and are able to predict whether it will be impossible, resolving the issue in time.

Are animals aware of their suffering?

But are animals, for example, aware of their own suffering? The question is so profound that it ends up being situated between the domains of science and philosophy, being related to what philosophers call qualiasuch as, for example, the conscious pain that cruelty causes in us.

The neural circuits that fire when a person experiences an emotion are essential for a mouse to experience the same emotion.

As we’ve seen, defining consciousness is tricky, even for humans. For animals, the reference document remains the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, a document signed in 2012, in which 13 neuroscientists claim that most animal species have neurological substrates that generate consciousness and that, therefore, human beings Humans are not the only ones endowed with such capacity.

In addition to having identified, both in humans and in other animals, homologous circuits whose activity coincides with conscious experience, it was noticed that, for example, the neuronal circuits that are activated when a person feels an emotion are essential for a rat to experience the same emotion.

“The evidence shows that human beings are not the only ones to present mental states, feelings, intentional actions and intelligence”, said, at the time, Philip Low, professor at Stanford University and one of the signatories of the declaration.

According to the researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “the areas of the brain that distinguish us from other animals are not those that produce consciousness” and “all mammals, all birds and many other creatures, such as the octopus, have neural structures that produce consciousness. This means that these animals suffer.”

All mammals, all birds, and many other creatures, such as the octopus, have neural structures that produce consciousness. This means that these animals suffer

Philip Low – MIT researcher

In 2019, Low lamented to El País the situation of bullfighting in Spain and underlined the need for progress in the pharmaceutical industry, since, “every year, around 100 million vertebrates are sacrificed, more than 40 billion dollars are invested, and 94% of the molecules tested in these animals fail”.

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