The recent news reports that cuttlefish are able to pass the marshmallow test are interesting.
The classic marshmallow test involved giving a young child a marshmallow but promising them a second one if they could hold off eating the first for 15 minutes. The kid was then left alone in a room with the first marshmallow for those 15 minutes, but monitored via a hidden camera. Some kids ate the first marshmallow immediately, others struggled with it, and about a third held out the entire 15 minutes. The ability of the child to delay their gratification was found to be correlated with success later in life, but a later replication of the study found that both a child’s ability to delay gratification and their later success in life were correlated with their socioeconomic background.
In the case of animals, the test is often holding off eating a somewhat tasty treat for a time in order to get a more tasty treat. That’s pretty much the sequence for the cuttlefish. They join a list of species who are able to do this, including great apes, covids, and parrots, as opposed to the list who cannot, including rats and chickens.
The reason I find this test interesting is it’s an example of value trade-off behavior, of value-based cost/benefit decision making. This is one of the criteria Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt use in their book, The Ancient Origins of Consciousness, to establish that affect consciousness is present. (Other criteria include nonreflexive operant conditioning based on valenced result, frustration behavior, self delivery of analgesics, etc.)
Value trade-off behavior has always struck me as a particularly potent indicator of the presence of affects. It seems to indicate that the animal is feeling multiple impulses and has to choose to inhibit one in favor of another. The marshmallow type test is a particularly strong example since it involves a time sequenced scenario that requires the animal being able to imagine alternate future states. So it’s not particularly surprising that only relatively intelligent species can pass it.
There are weaker forms of the test that less intelligent species can still pass. One example is putting a tasty treat in a chamber that’s colder than the animal prefers. Normally the animal would avoid the cold, but they’ll often endure it to get to the treat. The problem is, without the time sequenced component, it’s hard to be sure that one impulse isn’t just overwhelming the other. In other words, it’s hard to know whether the animal is truly feeling the affect, or is just having a storm of reflexes with a certain combination winning. It might well be some combination, a hybrid that challenges our binary notions of something either feeling or not feeling.
But it also shows that for a feeling to be a feeling, there has to be at least an incipient reasoning part of the system that utilizes it in decision making. If not, then it’s not a feeling but just a reflex or action program. In other words, to have feeling, you have to have cognition. The very meaning of feeling without it is incoherent. It’s like attempting to have art without an audience, a donut hole without the donut, or yin without the yang.
It seems like a lot of theories of consciousness overlook this simple realization. But maybe I’m missing something? Is there something that makes a feeling a feeling besides its effects?