Last week, Science Magazine published an interesting study on bird consciousness: A neural correlate of sensory consciousness in a corvid bird. The study conducted an experiment where crows were trained to respond to a sensory stimulus. The stimulus itself could be at the threshold of perceptibility, above that threshold, or missing. After the stimulus (or non-stimulus), there was a delay then a response prompt, where the crows had to respond in a certain way depending on the combination of whether they saw the stimulus and what type of prompt they received.
The neural activity of the crows in a region of their pallium analogous to the human prefrontal cortex was monitored while they were performing this task. The task itself seems to confirm that the crows have cognitive access to working memory and a high degree of intelligence. The team was able to track the neural activity reliably enough that they could predict when the crow would respond. From this data, the study authors claim to have isolated at least some of the neural correlates of corvid consciousness.
Unfortunately, this is not the most clearly written paper, so the logic doesn’t seem very clear, at least not to me. Crow intelligence is actually well established, yet this paper is getting a lot of attention. As far as I can tell, the reason is that it chose to characterize its results as demonstrating something about corvid consciousness. This has led to a lot of breathless press reports that it demonstrated crows are conscious “for the first time”. (The linked news article, from a science news site that is normally somewhat reliable, is a mess of inaccuracies about animal consciousness research.)
Among animal researchers, bird consciousness is not a controversial notion. The study I highlighted the other day on dimensions of animal consciousness included corvids as one of its chief examples. Which is why I didn’t get that excited about this study. But with all the attention, some neuroscientists are starting to actually push back against it. And I’ve seen a few people on social media opine that the study “moved the goalpost” so they could make their claim.
Now, I happen to think that intelligence and working memory are important aspects of consciousness, so I personally don’t have an issue with making conclusions about crow consciousness from this kind of evidence, or for that matter, from the evidence of previous studies.
But it’s interesting that most of this type of research doesn’t label itself as research into consciousness, but into things like visual discrimination, cognition, memory, and intelligence. Most of that research doesn’t get a lot of attention, because it’s missing the c-word, even though much of it can be seen as pertaining to consciousness. This is work on what Chalmers calls the “easy” problems, that is, problems that are tractable to scientific inquiry. Since I think the “hard” problem is basically the easy problems combined, work on those easy problems arguably is work on consciousness.
So does this study demonstrate crow consciousness? In my mind, not any more than previous work did. Crows definitely seem to have primary or sensory consciousness. And some of the previous work demonstrated that they have deliberative imagination. So unless you’re holding out for theory of mind self awareness, it already made a lot of sense to let them in club consciousness.
The study does seem to provide some information on how corvid brains work related to conscious activity, and is interesting in that regard. But it seems overhyped in its claims. On the other hand, skepticism about crow consciousness also seems misplaced.
Unless of course I’m missing something?