The problem of animal minds

Joseph LeDoux has an article at Nautilus on The Tricky Problem with Other Minds.  It’s an excerpt from his new book, which I’m currently reading.  For an idea of the main thesis:

The fact that animals can only respond nonverbally means there is no contrasting class of response that can be used to distinguish conscious from non-conscious processes. Elegant studies show that findings based on non-verbal responses in research on episodic memory, mental time travel, theory of mind, and subjective self-awareness in animals typically do not qualify as compelling evidence for conscious control of behavior. Such results are better accounted in “leaner” terms; that is, by non-conscious control processes.22 This does not mean that the animals lacked conscious awareness. It simply means that the results of the studies in question do not support the involvement of consciousness in the control of the behavior tested.

LeDoux makes an important point.  We have to be very careful when observing the behavior of non-human animals.  It’s very easy to see behavior similar to that of humans, and then assume that the same conscious states humans have with that behavior also apply to the animal.

On the other hand, and I’m saying this as someone who hasn’t yet finished his book, I think LeDoux might downplay the results in animal research a bit too much.  It does seem possible to identify behavior in humans that requires consciousness, such as dealing with novel situations, making value trade-off decisions, or overriding impulses, and then deduce that the equivalent behavior in animals also requires it.

But LeDoux makes an excellent point.  There are wide variances in what we can mean by the word “consciousness”.  In particular, he discusses a distinction between noetic and autonoetic consciousness.  Noetic consciousness appears to be consciousness of the environment and of one’s body.  Autonoetic appears to be consciousness of one’s mental thoughts.  He describes the autonoetic variety as providing the capability of mental time travel.

I’m not sure about this distinction, but in many ways it seems similar to the distinction between primary consciousness and metacognitive self awareness.  This always brings to mind a hierarchy I use to think about the various capabilities and stages:

  1.  Reflexes: fixed action patterns, automatic responses to stimuli.
  2. Perceptions: predictive models of the environment built with sensory input, expanding the scope of what the reflexes can react to.
  3. Attention: prioritization of what the reflexes react to, including bottom up attention: reflexive prioritization, and top down attention: prioritization from the next layer.
  4. Imagination / sentience: sensory action scenarios to resolve conflicts among reflexes, resulting in some being allowed and others inhibited.  It is here where reflexes become feelings, dispositions to act rather than automatic action.
  5. Metacognition: awareness and assessment of one’s own cognition, enabling metacognitive self awareness, symbolic thought such as language, and human level intelligence.

Noetic consciousness (if I’m understanding the term correctly) would seem to require 1-4.  Autonoetic might only come around with 5.  Although 4 enables the mental time travel LeDoux discusses, so this match may not be a clean one.  If I end up buying into the noetic vs autonoetic distinction, I might have to split 4 up.

But LeDoux’s point is that behavior precedes consciousness, and that’s easy to see using the hierarchy.  Unicellular organisms are able to engage in approach and avoidance behavior with only 1, reflexes.  The others only come much later in evolution.  It’s easy to see behavior driven by the lower levels and project the full hierarchy on them, because it’s what we have.

All of which is to say, that I think LeDoux is right that arguing about whether animals or conscious or not, as though consciousness is something they either have or don’t have, isn’t meaningful.  The real question is how conscious are they and what the nature of that consciousness is.

It’s natural to assume it’s the same as ours.  It’s part of the built in empathetic machinery we have as a social species.  But just because anthropomorphism is natural, doesn’t mean it’s right.  Science demands we be more skeptical.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

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17 Responses to The problem of animal minds

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    It has often been claimed that animals live “in the present.” But if that were true, animals wouldn’t learn as they would need a memory of the past to be able to apply that to the present. Our dog gets excited when we use the word “walk.” Apparently he has learned what a “walk” is and associates that with the word “walk” when we speak it. Whether this learning is conscious or subconscious is, I contend, irrelevant. We need to be trying very hard to understand human consciousness first, instead of trying to detect something we do not understand in other animals.

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    • I actually think studying animal cognition gives a lot of insight into human cognition, and vice-versa. A lot of problems that seem intractable when only looking at one, become clearer in the light of evolution, which we only get by looking a numerous species. Human emotions, for instance, are grounded in evolutionary instincts. Studying human and animal cognition together, coupled with artificial intelligence research, provides benefits to all three they’d each have a hard time getting individually.

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  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    “It’s very easy to see behavior similar to that of humans, and then assume that the same conscious states humans have with that behavior also apply to the animal.”

    If the brains are similar, and if the behavior arising from those similar brains is similar, isn’t the burden for more on accounting for why they must be different?

    I often wonder if LeDoux (and others who posit similar ideas) has ever really spent time with animals, has lived with them and experienced their will, emotions, and inner life.

    It’s pretty hard to look into the eyes of a dog you know well and not see “someone” there. They have moods, opinions, and desires.

    “There are wide variances in what we can mean by the word ‘consciousness’.”

    Which I think is a key reason the field is such a mess; no one can agree on the primary topic of study. How is it that an entire field of study exists without having a good definition of what’s being studied?

    “I’m not sure about this distinction, but in many ways it seems similar to the distinction between primary consciousness and metacognitive self awareness.”

    Yeah, and if one looks up the word “noetic” one falls down a mystical rabbit hole. (Especially if one visits the noetic site — yikes!) I think your definitions are better.

    I suppose “mental time travel” means memory? The ability to remember past experiences as past experiences?

    “The real question is how conscious are they and what the nature of that consciousness is.”

    Agree completely. It seems obvious, even.

    Again: similar brain structure, so why not similar minds? Simpler, perhaps, but similar nevertheless.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wyrd Smythe says:

      D’oh! “…burden FAR more on accounting…”

      Liked by 1 person

    • “If the brains are similar, and if the behavior arising from those similar brains is similar, isn’t the burden for more on accounting for why they must be different?”

      In the article, LeDoux discusses how different the primate prefrontal cortex is from other mammals, and how the human one is itself unique from other primates. Myself, while I think it’s important to understand functional and comparative anatomy, evolution has shown itself capable of solving problems in a variety of ways, so I’m leery of putting too much significance on anatomy.

      “I often wonder if LeDoux (and others who posit similar ideas) has ever really spent time with animals”

      It sounds like LeDoux has spent a lot of time working with animals. And he discussed the powerful effect pets have on our psychology. If I recall correctly, he tries to avoid thinking scientifically around his pets, but he also tries to avoid having sentiment contaminate his science.

      And just to be clear, in case I wasn’t in the post, LeDoux isn’t arguing that animals aren’t conscious, just that their version of consciousness is likely very different from ours.

      “How is it that an entire field of study exists without having a good definition of what’s being studied?”

      This is indeed the problem. And it appears to go back centuries to its mottled etymology, which is entangled with “conscience”. Hobbes and Locke used it in different ways, although Locke’s is closer to the modern idea. It’s worth noting that the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for the concept. They just talked in terms of psyche (soul). Which is why some neuroscientists think the concept is more trouble than it’s worth.

      My feeling is that, aside from colloquial conversation, attempting to talk about the concept with any precision without prefixing it (“access consciousness”, “exteroceptive consciousness”, etc), or referring to specific capabilities such as introspection, is pointless.

      “I suppose “mental time travel” means memory? The ability to remember past experiences as past experiences?”

      I think it means episodic memory, as well as imagining future episodes. It’s actually all the same imaginative capability for the brain, with the same machinery involved in both. An episodic memory is an imagining of the past. It just has a “past” asterisk attached to it, while the other has a “possible future” one.

      “Again: similar brain structure, so why not similar minds? Simpler, perhaps, but similar nevertheless.”

      A lot depends on the role of the prefrontal cortex. Here the unique prominence of this region in primates, and particularly in humans, could be significant. Of course, the PFC doesn’t do it alone. It requires intense interaction with the parietal, precuneus, anterior cingulate, and many other regions. But a lot of scientists think its role is pivotal. It certainly seems to be crucial for introspection.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        “I’m leery of putting too much significance on anatomy.”

        Would you say the brains of higher animals, especially primates, are more similar than different or more different than similar?

        “LeDoux isn’t arguing that animals aren’t conscious, just that their version of consciousness is likely very different from ours.”

        Maybe that point got a little deflated in the context of being old news. One of my very favorite quotes is: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” ~W.G. Sebald

        But again I’d ask, more similar than different or more different than similar?

        Which is the more significant, the differences or the similarities?

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        • Seems like it would depend on the context, and that’s where the ambiguous nature of “consciousness” is an issue. Obviously the brains of chimpanzees are far more similar to ours than a dog’s. But a dog’s is far more similar than a bird’s, a bird’s more than a fish’s, a fish more than an arthropod or cephalopod, etc.

          If we’re talking about base affects or sensory processing, then the similarities with primates seem more important. For instance, we both have trichromatic vision and an innate aversion to slithering things. We’ll likely have similar ways of perceiving the immediate environment, much more similar than the way a rat does, not to mention a bird or frog.

          But if we’re talking about introspection, then the differences might be more important. Primates are the only other species where the evidence for metacognition is relatively incontrovertible. But even they don’t appear to have it in the deep, hierarchical, and recursive sense we do.

          Liked by 1 person

        • BeingQuest says:

          I like your questions. I would say that primate brains are not so dissimilar from other equally effective functions stemming from the central nervous system among primates, where the brain’s evolutionary history is compared between them, meeting ‘different’ environmental challenges, social interaction protocols, and generally the shared needs of their ‘group’ existence.

          Only Social species with elaborate communication protocols in their select ‘groups’ (as Whale songs, for instance) will register cognition of the same with the similar, or steer clear the disparate.

          Songs, Vocalizations, Posture, Familiarity of Experience, Group Dynamics, THESE make the stuff that comprehension and cognition are made of in Social species, methinks, and will challenge, evolve the brain and nervous system withal on equally necessary terms, biologically sharing one environment, more or less. The learning dynamic appears to be practically universal in application and content, with a few tragic exceptions…as in conscious suicide alone or in vicious wars without end.

          While often environmental impositions restrict a full range of elaboration for that species’ appendages to meet every need of every spectrum of terrestrial topography. In a world of Water alone…Whales would be this planet’s Apex Intelligence, and perhaps one day were. Would we say that THEIR brain’s functions were so much unlike our own, as a Social species, and mammal to boot? I’d say much more like, than unlike, surpassing the likeness of many primates to each other even.

          Imagine…a certain whale brain (for instance) that functions for consciousness in ways that make or have made it more LIKE the modern human brain than the human brain is to many, most its primate ‘relatives’ on the evolutionary ‘tree’. I’d take it to be true, for favorite quotes, that for this reason there is MUCH comprehension between species of a certain Order of consciousness. Shall we enter into a Memory of Whales and Porpoise rescue of lost men and women at sea, or shipwrecked then saved by these ‘creatures’?

          I’d say that at a critical edge of awareness a point of recognition may arrive between distinctly heterogeneous species, that they are conscious of each other’s consciousness, able to be made pets to each other’s desires, often found in kind gestures for the wounded, or crying tears of a child abandoned and hurt, or sunken cat, dog or bird in a pool of water, muck or fire, from which it can’t escape, some helping hand to a merciful sentiment of being commonly present and awake to each other’s needs, wants and satisfactions, as it were.

          Anthropomorphic speculations. So I’m not an empiricist, nor professional. But I can recognize a more familiar face in other ‘kinds’ often more than among some of my ‘own’. Ironic, that. Thanks for the reflections. Fine regards.

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      • My feeling is that, aside from colloquial conversation, attempting to talk about the concept with any precision without prefixing it (“access consciousness”, “exteroceptive consciousness”, etc), or referring to specific capabilities such as introspection, is pointless.

        If only there was some feature common to each variation and perspective on consciousness.

        *
        [cough … cough … representation … cough]

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        • Might want to get that cough checked out. 😉

          The problem I see is that not all representations are conscious ones. We have no conscious access to the low resolution ones in the midbrain, or apparently the ones in early sensory regions. So, like other things, representation seems crucial, but not sufficient.

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          • Mike, I suggest you consider the possibility that consciousness is not one monolithic thing that you have or you don’t. Other prominent thinkers, like Minsky, Dennett, and Damasio, have referred to multiple capacities and agents within the brain. Each of these agents do consciousness-type things (reflexes, perception, attention, maybe even imagination) which are not available to the main/central/autobiographical agent, and each of these consciousness-type things involve representation.

            *

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          • [Mike, I didn’t mean to suggest you think of consciousness as a monolithic thing. However, others do. You can ignore that first sentence.]

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          • I agree that a lot of stuff does reflexes, perception seems to exist in unconscious layers in the brain, and bottom up attention is more of an emergent thing than a discrete capability. It’s why I personally don’t consider those first three layers as consciousness. (Although many insist they are.)

            But when it comes to imagination / sentience, a capability that is coordinated by the prefrontal cortex, but seems to involve the entire thalamo-cortical system and midbrain in supporting roles, I can’t really see any separate independent implementations anywhere else in the nervous system.

            And of course, it is this system which is accessible by the introspection machinery, and which interacts with the language centers. So it’s where our self reports come from.

            Where things get interesting is in split brain patients, where only one side has access to the language center.

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          • It sounds like you’re defining imagination as requiring prefrontal cortex coordination. I would assume that’s not your intention, but then how would you go about determining whether the brain stem, mid-brain, or amygdala were demonstrating imagination given that a verbal report is off the table? What if it’s imagination somewhere in there that leads to “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”?

            *

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          • I define imagination as scenario-action simulations, prospective and retrospective deliberation. The reference to the PFC is due to what we know about it in humans. Imagination and deliberation appear to be enormously complex mechanisms requiring a lot of substrate. If there are subterranean versions of it, they’re going to very simple in comparison.

            But I’m not aware of any evidence for even simple secondary versions, at least aside from the sense of considering the various aspects of the PFC (which is vast and composed of numerous regions) to be composed of multiple imaginative modules, and it may be that only some of which are accessible to the introspection machinery.

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  3. BeingQuest says:

    Anthropomorphism and Anthropocentrism are inevitable, methinks. The dual doors to our own, unspeakable Doom, perhaps?

    Like

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