Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Do Animals Have Self-Awareness?

I'm almost embarrassed to write a post on this subject. I mean, it seems ridiculous to me to even ask the question, "are animals self-aware?" But the question does not go away. Some people cling desperately to the notion that animals blunder through life with no real consciousness.

Some will go so far as to question whether humans have consciousness. Not current humans of course, but Julian Jaynes made a big splash with his book, "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind". Basically, he says that ancient people (up to only about 3000 years ago) could not think as we do today and were therefore not conscious. Some sort of catastrophe is supposed to have forced mankind to learn consciousness, so therefore consciousness itself is a product of human history and culture, and only originates from the human brain's left side. He says that prior to this breakthrough, humans lived in a hallucinatory state.

And this book is taken seriously. Is it any wonder that the question of animal consciousness persists?

I ask one simple question: If animals are not self-aware, why does a predator hide from, and stalk, his prey?

And the scientific community is not ruled by Jaynesian thought. In the March 2008 issue of National Geographic Magazine, Virginia Morell wrote this on the subject of animals imitating others:
Although imitation was once regarded as a simple-minded skill, in recent years cognitive scientists have revealed that it's extremely difficult, requiring the imitator to form a mental image of the other person's body and pose, then adjust his own body parts into the same position -- actions that imply an awareness of one's self.
Good point.


  1. Animals have what is known as biological intelligence. Their responses (such as response by the hunter and the prey during hunting) are based primarily on this biological intelligence.

    This is different than awareness.

    Awareness basically needs a developed inner world i.e. emotions, memory, analytical thinking and a sense of being i.e. an ability to stand aside from it and observe it.

    What observes this inner world is known as awareness which Zen masters call as "the being before thinking".

    The inner world of animals is far less developed in animals. Even the memory is "sensory memory" and not "thoughts associated memory".

    Therefore animals are conscious but not aware (or rather much less aware than human beings).

    Some specific animals such as some dolphins, elephants etc. have been said to be aware but that is also no comparison with human awareness.

  2. I marvel at the certainty with which you make these statements, especially since it is logically impossible to prove the non-existence of anything (in this case, awareness in animals).

    I take it, then, that you are unmoved by the display of emotions by Christian the lion (to cite the most popular current example).

    You did not directly address the idea that imitation, which animals certainly do, requires self-awareness and a sense of being, so I would be interested in knowing how you explain the ability to imitate.

    The timing of your comment is interesting, since I am preparing to write an article on animals' imaginations. It would appear that your viewpoint does not allow this, either.

    I suspect that I would have a lot to say about "the being before thinking" but I want to be sure I understand the concept. I cannot find a reference to it; can you provide one?