In the last consciousness post, which discussed issues with panpsychism and simple definitions of consciousness, I laid out five functional layers of cognition which I find helpful when trying to think about systems that are more or less conscious. Just to recap, those layers are:
- Reflexes, primal reactions to stimuli.
- Perception, sensory models of the environment that increase the scope of what the reflexes can react to.
- Attention, prioritizing which perceptions the reflexes are reacting to.
- Imagination, action planning, scenario simulations, deciding which reflexes to allow or inhibit.
- Metacognition, introspective access to portions of the processing happening in the above layers.
In the discussion thread on that post, self awareness came up a few times, particularly in relation to this framework. As you might imagine, as someone who’s been posting under the name “SelfAwarePatterns” for several years, I have some thoughts on this.
Just like consciousness overall, I don’t think self awareness is a simple concept. It can mean different things in different contexts. For purposes of this post, I’m going to divide it up into four concepts and try to relate them to the layers above.
At consciousness layer 2, perception, I think we get the simplest form of self awareness, body awareness. In essence, this is having a sense that there is something different about your body from the rest of the environment. I think body awareness is phylogenetically ancient, dating back to the Cambrian explosion, and is pervasive in the animal kingdom, including any animal with distance senses (sight, hearing, smell). As I’ve said before, distance senses seem pointless unless they enable modeling of the environment, and those models are themselves of limited use if they don’t include your body and its relation to that environment.
The next type is attention awareness, which models the brain’s attentional state. I think of this as layer 4 modeling what’s happening in layer 3. (These layers appear to be handled by different regions of the brain.) This type of awareness is explored in Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory. It provides what we typically think of as top down attention, as opposed to bottom up attention driven from the perceptions in layer 2.
The third type, affect awareness, is integral to the scenario simulations that happen in layer 4. Affects can be thought of as roughly synonymous with emotions or feelings, although at a broader and more primal level. Affects include states like fear, pleasure, anger, but also more primal ones like hunger.
Each action scenario needs to be assessed on its desirability, whether it should be the action attempted, and those assessments happen in terms of the affects each scenario triggers. The results of the simulations are that some reflexes are inhibited and some allowed. Arguably, it’s this change from automatic action to possible action that turn the reflexes into affects, so in a sense, affect awareness could be considered reflex awareness that enables the creation of affects.
The types of self awareness discussed so far are essentially a system modeling the function of something else. Body awareness is the brain modeling the body, attention awareness is the planning regions of the brain modeling the attention regions, and affect awareness is the planning regions modeling the sub-cortical reflex circuits. But the final type, metacognitive awareness, recursive self reflection, is different. It’s the planning regions modeling their own processing.
Metacognitive awareness lives in layer 5, metacognition. This is self awareness in its most profound sense. It’s being aware of your own awareness, experiencing your own experience, thinking about your own thoughts, being conscious of your own consciousness. But it’s more than that, because if you understand this paragraph, it shows you have the ability to be aware of the awareness of your awareness. And if you understood the last sentence, it means you have the ability to do so to an arbitrary level of recursion.
This type of awareness is far rarer in the animal kingdom than the other kinds. It requires a metacognitive capability, an ability to build models not just of the environment, your own body, your attention, or your affective states, but to build models of the models, to reason about your own reasoning. This capability appears to be limited to only a few species. But scientifically determining exactly which species is difficult.
One test that’s been around for a few decades is the mirror test. You sneak a mark or sticker on the animal where it can’t see it, then put them in front of a mirror. If the animal sees its reflection, notices the mark or sticker and tries to remove it, then, the advocates of this test propose, it is aware of itself. But this test seems to conflate the different types of self awareness noted above, so it’s not clear what’s being demonstrated. It could be only body awareness, although I can also see a case that it might demonstrate attention awareness too.
Regardless, most species fail the mirror test. Mammals that pass include elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, dolphins, and killer whales. The only non-mammal that passes is the Eurasian magpie. Gorillas, monkeys, dogs, cats, octopusses, and other tested species, all fail.
But testing for the higher form of self awareness, metacognitive awareness, means testing for metacognition itself, which more recent tests try to get at directly.
One test looks at how animals behave when they’ve been given ambiguous information about how to get a reward (usually a piece of food). If the ambiguity causes them to display uncertainty, the reasoning goes, then they must understand how limited their knowledge is. Dolphins and monkeys seem to pass this test, but not birds. However, this test has been criticized because it’s not clear that the displayed behavior comes from knowledge of uncertainty, or just uncertainty. It could be argued that fruit flies display uncertainty. Does that prove they have metacognition?
A more rigorous experiment starts by showing an animal information, then hides that information. The animal then has to decide whether to take a test on what they remember seeing. If they decide not to take the test, they get a moderately tasty treat. If they do take the test and fail, they get nothing. But if they take it and succeed, they get a much tastier treat. The idea is that their decision on whether or not to take the test depends on their evaluation of how well they remember the information. The goal of the overall experiment is to measure how accurately the animal can assess its own memory.
Some primates pass this more rigorous test, but nothing else seems to. Dolphins and birds reportedly fail it. This type of self reflective ability appears to be restricted to only primates. (There was a study that seemed to show rats passing a similar test, but the specific test reportedly had a flaw where the rats might simply have learned an optimized sequence without any metacognition.)
What do all these tests mean? Well, failure to pass them is not necessarily conclusive. There may be confounding variables. For example, all of these tests seem to require relatively high intelligence. I think this is a particularly serious issue for the mirror test. What it’s testing for is a fairly straightforward type of body or attention awareness, but the intelligence required to figure out who the reflection is seems bound to generate false negatives.
This seems like less of an issue for the metacognition tests. Metacognition could itself be considered a type of intelligence. And its functionality might not be a useful adaptation unless it’s paired with a certain level of intelligence. Still, as I noted in the panpsychism post, any time a test shows that only primates have a certain ability, we need to be mindful of the possibility of an anthropocentric bias.
Again, my own sense is that body awareness is pervasive among animals. I think attention and affect awareness are also relatively pervasive, although as this NY Times article that amanimal shared with me discusses, humans are able to imagine and plan far more deeply and much further into the future than other animals. Most animals can only think ahead by a few minutes, whereas humans can do it days, months, years, or even decades into the future.
This seems to indicate that the level 4 capabilities of most animals, along with the associated attention and affect awareness, are far more limited than in humans. And metacognitive awareness, the highest form of self awareness, only appears to exist in humans and, to a lesser extent, in a few other species.
Considering that our sense of inner experience likely comes from a combination of attention, affect, and metacognitive awareness, it seems like the results of these tests are a stark reminder that we should be careful to not project our own cognitive scope on animals, even when our intuitions are powerfully urging us to do so.
Unless of course there are aspects of this I’m missing?