Are Some Animals ‘More Conscious’ than Others?

In recent years, debates about animal consciousness have moved on from the question of whether any non- human animals are conscious to the questions of which animals are conscious and what form their conscious experiences take. How can we make sense of variation in consciousness across the animal kingdom? Animal consciousness research rests on the idea that by identifying a host of behavioral, cognitive, and neuronal criteria for attributing conscious states, these challenges may be overcome.

Does consciousness come in degrees? If we ask ‘Is a human more conscious than an octopus?’, the question barely makes sense. Any single scale for evaluating questions such as these would end up neglecting important dimensions of variation. For this reason, rather than thinking of consciousness as a single spectrum, it may make more sense to adopt a multidimensional approach, not a single-scale approach.

What are the main dimensions of variation we can investigate? Researchers propose a multidimensional framework for thinking about animal consciousness:

  1. Perceptual richness: the level of detail an entity is capable of perceiving from its environment (for example, having a very good sense of vision that influences cognition)
  2. Evaluative richness: the range of emotions an organism can experience that allow an animal to evaluate a system (for example, a mouse will choose to endure a colder environment if it means sweeter food)
  3. Integration at a time (unity): an organism is capable of having a single perspective of the world (for example, humans experience everything we are consciously aware of as part of one common stream of thought)
  4. Integration across time (temporality): the experience of the world flows from one moment into the next and the ability to recall the past and simulate the future
  5. Self-consciousness: the awareness of oneself as distinct from the outside world

This multidimensional approach is not only useful for understanding animal consciousness, but may help us understand our own experiences in the world. And here are some amazing facts about animal cognition:

  1. Dolphins can read signs that have an action on it and call each other by unique names
  2. Ravens hold funerals for the dead
  3. Humans think that piranhas communicate with radio signals because studies show that piranhas have a great sense of hearing
  4. Narwhals live in packs of 15-20, though they could go up to thousands. They hunt in their groups and have rituals together
  5. If a baby dolphin swims away too often, it’s mother may trap it underwater for a few seconds without letting it breathe as a punishment.
  6. Crows can solve puzzles as well as 5-year-old humans

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