Do animals demonstrate consciousness?

Four-year-old Look Khob appears cheerful as he paints away at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang province, Thailand. See more mammal pictures.
Four-year-old Look Khob appears cheerful as he paints away at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang province, Thailand. See more mammal pictures.
AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong

Elephant art has been a sensation for many years. Although the pachyderms are trained to paint -- how to hold a brush with their trunks, how to make strokes on a canvas -- from there, according to an interview with prominent elephant art academy founder Alex Melamid, trainers typically try to stay out of the elephants' artistic domain and let them work in their own individual styles [source: Bukowski].

Melamid said younger elephants are especially fond of painting. Some favor a speedy process, while others take a much different approach, painting in a methodical and unrushed manner, gently doling out drops of paint or pulling down graceful brushstrokes after appearing to carefully consider the progress of their creations.


But does this artwork represent a form of self-expression that could help determine if elephants view the world with humanlike consciousness? And what about self-recognition or self-awareness? While most of the elephants only succeed in mastering abstract painting, some elephants, such as Paya, are able to paint figurative portrayals of elephant forms. So does Paya recognize what he is doing as portraiture (or even self-portraiture), or has he simply learned to fine-tune his skills at depicting the pachyderm form?

Attempting to answer the multitude of philosophical, biological, psychological and neurological questions concerning consciousness has occupied intellectuals for centuries, yet few conclusive verdicts have been reached. Consider these three fundamental and uncertain aspects one can argue about consciousness: What are the different ways in which the word itself can be defined; how do these various interpretations physically and psychologically occur; and, in what manner and to what degree do they manifest (or need to manifest) to qualify as consciousness as most would intuitively understand the concept?

For example, let's look more closely at consciousness as the term applies to our particular query. To demonstrate consciousness, does an organism simply need to perceive the world around it through sensory experiences and respond to those sensations? Does it need to store and comprehend this information so it can relate past sensory data to new situations? Must it be implicitly aware of its own existence, or, to take it a step further, must it have an explicit self-awareness of its place in the world and see itself as an active agent?

On the next page, we'll look at some examples of animals that, while without the necessary language tools to convey their mental perceptions to us, could be displaying signs of consciousness on par with our own.


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.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Aldhous, Peter. "Elephants see themselves in the mirror." New Scientist. Oct. 30, 2006. (3/2/2010)
  • Branon, Nicole. "Magpies Recognize Their Faces in the Mirror." Scientific American. December 2008. (3/2/2010)
  • Bukowski, Elizabeth. "Why do elephants paint?" Salon. March 23, 2000. (3/2/2010)
  • "Elephant Painting." April 3, 2008. (3/2/2010)
  • "Elephant 'self-portrait' on show." BBC. July 21, 2006. (3/2/2010)
  • Knobe, Joshua and Prinz, Jesse. "Intuitions about Consciousness: Experimental Studies." University of North Carolina -- Chapel Hill.
  • Koch, Christof. "Exploring Consciousness through the Study of Bees." Scientific American. December 2008. (3/2/2010)
  • Pinker, Steven. "The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness." Time. Jan. 19, 2007. (3/2/2010),9171,1580394-1,00.html
  • Reiss, Diana and Marino, Lori. "Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. May 8, 2001. (3/2/2010)
  • The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project Web site. (3/2/2010)
  • Van Gulick, Robert. "Consciousness." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Aug. 16, 2004. (3/2/2010)