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Neuroscientists claim octopus has consciousness

Okay, it’s August, but anyway …

In “Octopuses Gain Consciousness (According to Scientists’ Declaration)” (Scientific American, August 21, 2012), Katherine Harmon reports,

Elephants cooperate to solve problems. Chimpanzees teach youngsters to make tools. Even octopuses seem to be able to plan. So should we humans really be surprised that “consciousness” probably does not only exist in us?

This privileged state of subjective awareness in fact goes well beyond Homo sapiens, according to the new Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (pdf), which was signed last month by a group of cognitive neuroscientists, computational neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists who attended the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals at Cambridge University in the U.K.

The octopus was the only invertebrate that made the list so far. Declaration here.

There seems to be a fair amount of confusion here. Few people who have lived with dogs, cats, parrots, or horses will find any reason to doubt that they have consciousness.

The problem is that no one knows what consciousness is, exactly, or how it arises, and – hat tip to Thomas Nagel – no one knows what it is like to be a bat. Or octopus.

That is more or less admitted:

“Exactly how organized brain matter gives rise to images and sounds, lust and hate, memories, dreams and plans, remains unclear,” Christof Koch, chief science officer at the Allen Institute of Brain Science, and co-presenter of the new declaration, recently wrote in the Huffington Post.

The Declaration insists that great strides are being made, but under the circumstances, it would be really hard to know.

At least the octopus is finally being recognized as an intelligent creature:

Did you know that octopuses can walk on land?

See also: Can the concept of information explain consciousness?

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7 Responses to Neuroscientists claim octopus has consciousness

  1. I’m uncertain as to the point of this. It’s a mighty declaration that asserts that consciousness exists. But fails to make any effort to define what consciousness is. This strikes as not only profoundly unscientific but also utterly useless for something as minimal as producing a dictionary.

    Indeed, the whole unseemly notion of a ‘Declaration’ and a ‘Signing Ceremony’ appears to have quite a bit more to do with ensuring the Who’s Who of ideological purity on this count. But to the degree that is so, then I can hardly find any point or purpose behind all this officiation unless it’s to rewrite the menu at the local diner.

    But then, with all the luck with Whales, I doubt they’ll get any further with the Japanese on the point of banning Takoyaki as well.

  2. Perhaps its not that involved.
    UD has reported before about Octo eyes being unique in the sea for sea creatures. convergent evolution they cry!
    yet maybe the point about the eyes is the point about the planning.
    perhaps its all related to how the memory works.
    The eyes have a good memory to work with and so can have eyes like us, as i understand it, and planning is a thing of creatures with good memory’s.
    Just speculating.

  3. Since my Ph.D. thesis was on animal minds, I’d just like to make a few remarks about the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness .

    1. I have corresponded with some of the authors of the Declaration, and they very kindly answered some of my queries while I was doing my research.

    2. I would like to state my objection to the following sentence in the Declaration:

    “Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots.” (Bold emphasis mine – VJT.)

    This statement is an exaggeration, which goes far beyond the available evidence.

    Neuroscientists commonly distinguish between primary and higher-order forms of consciousness. In his essay, The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes (Reviews in Fisheries Science, 10(1): 1–38, 2002), Dr. James Rose defines higher-order consciousness as follows:

    “Higher-order consciousness includes awareness of ones self as an entity that exists separately from other entities; it has an autobiographical dimension, including a memory of past life events; an awareness of facts, such as one’s language vocabulary; and a capacity for planning and anticipation of the future.”

    Primary consciousness, on the other hand, “refers to the moment-to-moment awareness of sensory experiences and some internal states, such as emotions.”

    While there is an impressive array of evidence that non-human animals (especially mammals, but also probably birds and possibly cephalopods) possess primary consciousness, there is no solid evidence that any non-human animal possesses higher-order consciousness.

    That includes chimps. If you want to see how stupid chimps can be, just watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7A7z-8CVDM
    Anyone who thinks I am being unfair to chimps might like to have a look at Dr. Daniel Povinelli’s Web page . Povinelli has argued that there’s no good evidence to date indicating that nonhuman primates are capable of reasoning about unobservable mental states of others (e.g. perceptions, desires, and beliefs), or about unobservable aspects of physical interactions (e.g. gravity, force and mass). Nor do they appear to have a concept of self like ours.

    When we come to birds, the evidence for high-order consciousness is very weak. Indeed, just a few years ago, most neuroscientists (including Dr. James Rose, whose article I cited above) were inclined to deny that birds were even capable of primary consciousness, let alone higher-order consciousness.

    The late African grey parrot, Alex, was shown to display comprehension of a number of simple concepts when spoken to, but unfortunately did not demonstrate complete facility with the English language. Researchers were never able to verify the presence of higher consciousness in Alex.

    While African grey parrots can answer simple questions relating to how many objects are present nearby, and what kinds of objects they are, no parrot has ever been shown to be capable of planning for tomorrow, let alone thirty years from now (long-range planning).

    The European magpie (not the African grey parrot) is the only bird which has ever been shown to be able to pass the mirror test, which is commonly used to assess self-awareness. Even this is being very generous: all the test really establishes, as the philosopher Michael P. T. Leahy has pointed out, is awareness of one’s body, as distinct from other bodies. It does not establish self-awareness.

    No parrot or crow has ever given an interview in which it told its life story. Autobiographical memory is, as far as we are aware, unique to human beings.

    And while the tool-making abilities of New Caledonian crows like Betty are indeed impressive, no crow has ever been able to explain why the solution it chose was the best. Nor is there even a smidgin of evidence that birds instruct their young in the art of tool-making, by telling them why one way of making tools is better than another. When discussing how chicks learn from their parents, it would be better to speak of imitation rather than “instruction.”

    I conclude that the claim that some birds possess “near human-like levels of consciousness” is completely overblown.

    3. As regards primary consciousness, there is a high degree of agreement among neuroscientists, after performing experiments on various kinds of animals, that the following features are necessary for even this minimal kind of consciousness:

    (i) low-level irregular activity in raw EEG recordings (ranging from 20 to 70Hz) while awake, as contrasted with regular activity of less than 4Hz during deep sleep, in persistent vegetative states, under anesthesia, and during epileptic absence seizures;

    (ii) the presence of both a thalamus and cortex and the recursive, or reentrant, pathways between the two;

    (iii) widespread brain activation that seems to spread from sensory cortex to parietal, prefrontal, and medial-temporal areas. In short, conscious states require the simultaneous activation of large areas of the brain.

    Now we can see why having a neocortex is so important for mammals. The neocortex exhibits a unique degree of inter-connectivity. To quote Rose:

    “A principal difference between mammalian brains and those of other vertebrates is the expansion and complexity of the mammalian cerebral hemispheres (Nieuwenhuys et al., 1998a; Preuss, 2000; van Dongen, 1998). Cerebral hemisphere size and complexity has reached its greatest extreme in mammals, with the development of neocortex, a six layered type of cortex present only in mammals (Allman, 1999; Preuss, 2000; Voogd et al., 1998). Even among mammals there is a wide range of cerebral hemisphere development, with primates tending to have substantially more neocortex relative to their body size than most other mammals (van Dongen, 1998; Voogd et al., 1998). Humans have the greatest degree of cerebral hemisphere development in two major respects: relatively more total neocortex for our body weight and more differentiation of neocortex structural subtypes (Mountcastle, 1998; Preuss, 2000). The latter fact is especially evident in the large, specialized cortical regions that mediate our distinctive, species-specific capacities for language, long-term planning, and abstract thinking (Donald, 1991; Kolb and Whishaw, 1995; Preuss, 2000).

    “Extensive evidence demonstrates that our capacity for conscious awareness of our experiences and of our own existence depends on the functions of this expansive, specialized neocortex. This evidence has come from diverse sources such as clinical neuropsychology (Kolb and Whishaw, 1995), neurology (Young et al., 1998; Laureys et al., 1999, 2000a-c), neurosurgery (Kihlstrom et al., 1999), functional brain imaging (Dolan, 2000; Laureys et al., 1999, 2000a-c), electrophysiology (Libet, 1999) and cognitive neuroscience (Güzeldere et al., 2000; Merikle and Daneman, 2000; Preuss, 2000). A strong case has been made that it is mainly those cortical regions that have achieved such massive expansion in humans that are most centrally involved in the production of consciousness (Edelman and Tononi, 2000; Laureys et al., 1999, 2000a-c).”

    What about birds? When I wrote my thesis a few years ago, the question of whether birds possessed primary consciousness was a very open one. The avian brain lacks a neocortex. Since then, structures in the avain brain that are analogous to the neocortex have been identified. There is also an avian thalamus. Additionally, waking EEG patterns in birds resemble those recorded in mammals. It seems safe to say, then, that birds possess primary consciousness.

    What about other animals? Here I’d just like to point out one simple little fact: only mammals and birds possess the EEG patterns that differentiate wakeful consciousness from sleep. Other animals (including reptiles) show periods of torpor and inactivity, but not sleep as we understand the term, in the strict neurological sense. That suggests to me that primary consciousness is confined to mammals and birds.

    So when I read the following statement in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness , I am inclined to think it is over-stating the available evidence:

    …[T]he weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

    Only for mammals and birds do scientists have firm evidence of primary consciousness at present.

    4. In addition to primary consciousness and affective consciousness, a few neuroscientists believe there is evidence for a more primitive kind of consciousness in animals, which they call affective consciousness. This consciousness relates to primitive emotional states, such as fear and rage. Some of the signatories of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness also espouse this view – notably Dr. Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp maintains that this affective consciousness can be found in reptiles, as well as mammals and birds. He also postulates the existence of “subcortical” consciousness in decorticate rats (rats whose neocortex has been removed).

    Most neuroscientists would disagree with Panksepp regarding his claim that decorticate rats are conscious. They point out that one of the hallmarks of consciousness is its unified nature, i.e. the fact that we experience everything as an integrated whole. The reason why this is possible is the presence of the neocortex, with its massive horizontal inter-connectedness, enabling association cortical regions such as the prefrontal cortex to receive broad, convergent information and have it all available simultaneously. Unfortunately, subcortical forebrain and brainstem systems do not possess this kind of connectivity.

    When we look at most animals, we do not find anything like the degree of interconnectivity that we observe in the mammalian neocortex.

    One of the signatories of the Declaration, Cristof Koch, has suggested in his book, “Quest for Consciousness” (Roberts and Company, Colorado, 2004, p. 320) that even fruitflies might be conscious. When I wrote to David Edelman regarding this possibility, he replied that in his opinion, it was not likely that the interaction of a mere one million neurons (as in, say, the brain of a honeybee), would yield something we would call consciousness. (Of course, a fruit fly has even fewer neurons in its brain.) Insects don’t appear to possess any of the three properties of consciousness identified in mammals (and birds).

    The question of whether some cephalopods (e.g. octopuses) possess consciousness is a scientifically interesting one. However, a certain degree of scientific caution with regard to claims that consciousness is found in “many other creatures”, as the authors of the Declaration suggest, is definitely warranted.

  4. Thanks much, vjtorley at 3. One problem may be the confusion of intelligence with consciousness.

    Most animal mind studies focus on the animal’s ability to solve a problem. Which makes sense, because either the animal learns to solve the problem or not. Assuming honest observation, the researcher can offer evidence to the reader/viewer.

    But the ability to solve a problem may not be evidence of consciousness. Because resolving the problem usually results in a food reward, there is a natural focus for the animal’s perceptions – on the reward. Some animals are better able to use their mental abilities for such tasks than others, even in the same species.

    What is really being tested is intelligence in problem-solving, not the presence of a life of the mind.

    Some of us think that domestic animals have a sort of consciousness because of the relational way they behave, though it is limited by many factors.

  5. Here is a basic outline of the mystery of life and the failure of the reductionist approach to truly capture what the essence of life is.

    The Mystery Of Life – God’s Creation & Providence – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4193364

    The Bible is fairly clear that man is very distinct from other animals:

    Genesis 1:26-27
    Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ”

    To back that claim up, the following video is very impressive in its experimental evidence for the transcendence of the human mind. Of particular note, Dr. Sheldrake mentions, beginning at the 17:30 minute mark of the video, experiments done in which the dogs of human owners would go to the door and wait for their master to come home as soon as the master had formed the intention of going home, no matter how far away from home the master was when he formed the intention of going home. He also mentioned in the video, around the 20:15 mark, that this correspondence between human minds and animal minds held for all mammal, and bird, pets, but did not hold for reptiles, fish, or insect, pets.

    The Mind Is Not The Brain – Scientific Evidence – Rupert Sheldrake – (Referenced Notes) – video
    http://vimeo.com/33479544

    Yet the Bible is even more dramatic in its claim of the uniqueness of human beings than to merely claim that we are given dominion over the other animals of the earth, for the Bible also makes the audacious claim that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,,”.

    John 1: 1-4 & 14
    1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.,,,
    The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

    This passage of scripture clearly indicates that we have access to a unique relationship with Almighty God, through Christ, that is unavailable to other animals.

    One area of research, that backs this ‘unique relationship’ claim up, that sets man dramatically apart from other animals, is that man has the ability to profoundly manipulate and process information:

    Darwin’s mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds:
    Excerpt: There is a profound functional discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. We argue that this discontinuity pervades nearly every domain of cognition and runs much deeper than even the spectacular scaffolding provided by language or culture can explain. We hypothesize that the cognitive discontinuity between human and nonhuman animals is largely due to the degree to which human and nonhuman minds are able to approximate the higher-order, systematic, relational capabilities of a physical symbol system (i.e. manipulate information).
    http://www.mendeley.com/resear.....n-minds-1/

    I like how the authors of the ‘Evolution of the Genus Homo’ paper, Tattersall and Schwartz, draw out this following ‘what it means to be human’ distinction in their paper:

    Evolution of the Genus Homo – Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences – Tattersall, Schwartz, May 2009
    Excerpt: “Unusual though Homo sapiens may be morphologically, it is undoubtedly our remarkable cognitive qualities that most strikingly demarcate us from all other extant species. They are certainly what give us our strong subjective sense of being qualitatively different. And they are all ultimately traceable to our symbolic capacity. Human beings alone, it seems, mentally dissect the world into a multitude of discrete symbols, and combine and recombine those symbols in their minds to produce hypotheses of alternative possibilities. When exactly Homo sapiens acquired this unusual ability is the subject of debate.”
    http://arjournals.annualreview.....208.100202

    Or to put it more dramatically as to how profound this functional discontinuity is between mans’ mind and animal minds, as I heard one man say, I’ll believe in Darwinian evolution when I see monkeys building spaceships to launch other monkeys to the moon!” :)

    Yet another very interesting thing to note in mans’ unique ability to manipulate information, a finding that even more strongly hints that man does indeed have access to a unique personal relationship with God through Christ, is that, very, very, contrary to materialistic thought, the foundation of reality is found to be ‘information theoretic’ in its basis:

    Why the Quantum? It from Bit? A Participatory Universe?
    Excerpt: In conclusion, it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Thence the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word.” Anton Zeilinger – a leading expert in quantum teleportation:
    http://www.metanexus.net/archi.....linger.pdf

    In fact, Materialism, which is, in many areas of science such as Darwinism, the prevalent philosophy of science, had postulated for centuries that everything reduced to, or emerged from material atoms, yet the correct structure of reality is now found by science to be as follows:

    1. material particles (mass) normally reduces to energy (e=mc^2)
    2. energy and mass both reduce to information (quantum teleportation)
    3. information reduces to consciousness (geometric centrality of conscious observation in universe dictates that consciousness must precede quantum wave collapse to its single bit state)

    As well, as would be expected from the preceding findings on the structure of reality (i.e. Consciousness preceding material), and very, very, contrary to materialistic thought, the human mind is shown to have the ability to subtly effect ‘material’ reality:

    Scientific Evidence That Mind Effects Matter – Random Number Generators – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4198007

    I once asked a evolutionist, after showing him the preceding experiments, “Since you ultimately believe that the ‘god of random chance’ produced everything we see around us, what in the world is my mind doing pushing your non-existent god around?”

    And even though this subtle ability to push random number generators around is certainly very interesting to take note of, the Bible is very clear that far greater abilities, far greater than merely pushing random number generators around, lay dormant within us:

    Mark 11:23
    Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.

    Matthew 14:29-31
    He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

    All I can say is that, since I haven’t seen or heard of anyone, much less myself, moving mountains around with their mind, or haven’t seen or heard anyone, much less myself, walking on water, we all are just spiritual babes who have a lot of ‘spiritual growing up’ to do:

    Somewhat related note of interest:

    A neurosurgeon (Eben Alexander) confronts the non-material nature of consciousness – December 2011
    Excerpted quote: To me one thing that has emerged from my experience and from very rigorous analysis of that experience over several years, talking it over with others that I respect in neuroscience, and really trying to come up with an answer, is that consciousness outside of the brain is a fact. It’s an established fact. And of course, that was a hard place for me to get, coming from being a card-toting reductive materialist over decades. It was very difficult to get to knowing that consciousness, that there’s a soul of us that is not dependent on the brain.
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....ciousness/

    This following video interview of a Harvard Neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, who had a Near Death Experience (NDE), is very interesting. His NDE was rather unique from typical NDEs in that he had completely lost brain wave function for 7 days while the rest of his body was on life support. As such he had what can be termed a ‘pure consciousness’ NDE that was dramatically different from the ‘typical’ Judeo-Christian NDEs of going through a tunnel to a higher heavenly dimension, seeing departed relatives, and having a life review.

    A Conversation with Near Death Experiencer Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III, M.D. with Steve Paulson (Interviewer) – video
    http://www.btci.org/bioethics/...../vid3.html

  6. Maus, I wish I could “like” your comment.

  7. vjtortey
    Chimps are just animals and don’t have intelligence like people made in God’s intellectual image.
    I have seen on the internet Chimps in Japan who show great memory abilities.
    They show ability to figure things out with lights and numbers and at great speed.

    I as a YEC welcome this as i see memory as part of the natural world.brain and unrelated to our thinking soul we will take to eternity.
    I welcome all large creatures etc having the same memory ability as man.
    They are just too dumb to use it.

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