Do animals demonstrate consciousness?

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Potential Consciousness in the Animal Kingdom

Two-month-old Mavrick will grow up to be one smart cookie, but will he also possess a consciousness similar to our own?
Two-month-old Mavrick will grow up to be one smart cookie, but will he also possess a consciousness similar to our own?
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Many people have no trouble intuitively believing that fellow big-brained mammals (and often their smaller-brained buds in the case of beloved household pets) easily exhibit some signs of consciousness. But when it comes to other life-forms like fish, insects and worms, those same people often waver when considering whether they, too, exhibit anything close to resembling consciousness.

First, we'll examine self-recognition, which some consider a herald of self-awareness. Self-awareness is a state that can denote introspection, personal identity and humanlike levels of consciousness.

Early research revealed that, like humans, some members of the great ape family can recognize their own reflections in mirrors, and for decades it was assumed that was the extent of it. But when studies were tailored to better suit the specific characteristics of dolphins and elephants, it was found that they, too, exhibit clear signs of self-recognition. In the case of dolphins, a test was developed for them to indicate interest in a mark without the use of hand gestures, and with elephants, their level of interest was examined when mirrors large enough for them to see their entire bodies were placed inside their habitats.

Perhaps more surprisingly, due to the even greater evolutionary divide, it seems some species of birds have evolved the capacity for self-recognition. A 2008 study found that magpies also try to examine strange markings indirectly placed beneath their beaks when set in front of a mirror.

But now, what if we look at the idea of consciousness through a simpler lens, such as the faceted eye of a bee? While perhaps not on par with pachyderms and chimpanzees, there are some interesting studies that reveal the honeybee is a lot cleverer than people often give it credit for. For example, during one study, researchers were able to train bees to fly through mazes based on colored visual cues. When those cues were replaced with similar yet different visual signage, the bees could still navigate the mazes -- showing an ability to retain information and generalize a situation.

So, while it's perhaps unlikely that bees contemplate the meaning of life as they fly from flower to flower, it is possible they demonstrate consciousness under at least one of the definitions mentioned on the previous page. For more quirky facts about creatures in the animal kingdom -- including humans -- continue on to the next page.