Neurizons will offer a platform for young scientists not only to learn from masters in a scientific field, but also to bring forward their own ideas and engage in a scientific exchange with these experts. We are inviting three speakers who are leading scientists in their field to introduce a scientific topic for discussion. This year’s topic is “Are animals conscious?”. The introduction will be followed by a 30-minute long interactive discussion between the speakers and the participants. Join us and share your ideas!
A 10-minute talk by the invited speakers, followed by a 30-minute discussion session.
Topic of this year
Are animals conscious?
Prof. Nicholas Humphrey: “How is it for them?”
What’s it like to be a dog, a spider, an earthworm or an intelligent robot? Are the lights on? What difference would it make? Many theorists assume that the phenomenal quality of consciousness emerges as an accidental side-effect of complex information processing by the brain, and that it has no consequences for cognition or behaviour. I argue, to the contrary, that phenomenal quality, if and where it exists, is a super-added feature of consciousness that has evolved because of the biological benefit it brings. In the case of human beings, it enhances the value of lived experience and thus changes humans’ sense of self-worth and their outlook on the material and social world. The question is: for which if any nonhuman animals does – or could – consciousness play this adaptive role? We can seek evidence at two levels: 1. Does the animal’s brain have the additional circuitry? 2. Does the animal’s behaviour demonstrate the additional commitment to life? My own reading of the evidence is that the majority of animals are not conscious in this way. The lights are off. If we apply the same criteria to intelligent machines, we can be sure that at the present stage of development the same is true.
Arguments for human consciousness usually derive from introspective reports; we lack such reports for nonhumans. Given the absence of confirmatory data, I argue that nonhumans have an awareness distinct from human consciousness; the extent to which it approaches human consciousness is the subject of ongoing study. I propose that this awareness is required for complex tasks and is a form of higher order cognition, sensu Delacour (1997), who posits consciousness as a “…certain style of cognition, characterized by a particular integration of different processes…” For some nonhumans, this awareness involves the capacity not only to process perceived data, but also to choose, from among various possible sets of rules that have been acquired or taught, the set that appropriately governs the current processing of that data (Pepperberg 1999). Simple associative processes probably require only basic perception. In contrast, complex comparative psychology tasks (e.g., transfer, hierarchical category formation) require integrating perception, centralized monitoring, and behavioral control; for some tasks, however, even this information-processing account cannot explain observed data. I will review one of several studies that provide evidence not for nonhuman consciousness equivalent to that of humans, but possibly for some of its elements: evidence concerning a Grey parrot’s derivation of a zero-like concept.
Prof. Dr. Melanie Wilke: “Visual consciousness and its losses”
At every moment when we are awake, our brains create an ‘inner world’, filled with percepts, imaginations and feelings. How does physical matter such as neurons in our brains lead to these subjective states and is there a special ‘hardware’ or dynamic required? Drawing conclusions from neuroscientific experiments in humans and animals, this talk will address the question where and how activity in the brain correlates with our subjective perception. In addition, the talk will discuss how damage to the brain, due to local inactivation of brain structures in animals or due to stroke in humans, can impair conscious perception. By better understanding the symptoms of patients we are learning more and more about the neural mechanisms underlying such failures and recovery of consciousness.