Monday, June 22, 2009

Are Insects Conscious?

When you delve into what's been written about the nature of consciousness and current scientific opinions about it, you find that a lot of people tie the existence of consciousness to brain complexity. This gives rise to arguments that humans have the most complex brains and so are the only conscious animals.

An article in Discover magazine reports on some scientists willing to take an open-minded approach to these ideas. These scientists are making discoveries about insects' brains.
"Many people would pooh-pooh the notion of insects having brains that are in any way comparable to those of primates. But one has to think of the principles underlying how you put a brain together, and those principles are likely to be universal."
Going against the flow of established thought, another scientist says,
"We have literally no idea at what level of brain complexity consciousness stops. Most people say, 'For heaven's sake, a bug isn't conscious.' But how do we know? We're not sure anymore. I don't kill bugs needlessly anymore."
The first sentence in that quote is worded a bit awkwardly. He means that as he looks at smaller and smaller brains in studying insects, he can't point to one level and say, this animal cannot be conscious.

A lot of the article is not for the squeamish, and it avoids raising the question of ethics of doing these experiments on conscious animals. But this is how scientists study brain function, and they are finding great similarities between insect brains and human brains.
"Probably what consciousness requires is a sufficiently complicated system with massive feedback. Insects have that. If you look at the mushroom bodies [a part of the cockroach's brain], they're massively parallel and have feedback."
I have an anecdote that, to me, demonstrates the similarities between the way humans think and the way insects think. One Spring, I had to knock down a wasp's nest--I had no choice, it had been started under one of the folds of our pool's winter cover. Soon after I did this, the wasp returned. He went immediately to the post where the nest had been. Not finding it, he went to neighboring posts on the pool wall, first to the right, then to the left. Still unsuccessful, he backed up to get a view of the entire pool, then flew to the post where the nest had been. Since this didn't work, he backed up further to get a view of the entire yard, and again returned to the post. Failing again, he flew off out of sight, in the direction he had come from originally, presumably to get a bearing on whether he had the right yard. And then he flew straight in to the original post. Finally, he realized something had happened to the nest and he gave up.

As I watched him, it struck me that this is exactly how a human would act if his car had been stolen from a parking lot.


  1. Thanks for pointing out the great article! I included some of the same quotations in a post on my own blog.

    I think research on insect consciousness is highly important, because if insects are conscious, it has major ramifications for the amount of suffering that exists in the wild. I'd like to see more support of the types of projects described in the article. And of course, I thank you for publicizing such findings (for insects and other animals) on this blog!

  2. Thank you for your kind words. The underlying aim of this blog is to reduce animal suffering at the hands of humans, by showing that they are as conscious, aware, and emotional as you or me. Lack of understanding leads directly to creating suffering.

    Insect consciousness certainly expands the definition of "sentient animals", doesn't it?

    I've had a look at some of the articles on your blog, and I see that you frequently deal with religious issues, such as "hell". I've deliberately mostly avoided that, but I wonder if that's something I should change.

  3. Your blog is opening my eyes to the richness of animal sentience. Thank you a lot. As to creating suffering, the causes are multiple and still mainly unknown, because suffering as such is still an utterly neglected topic in science... It seems to me that it is usually within a human (or gorilla, or rat, etc.) family that most socially produced suffering occurs, and therefore I would hesitate to attribute human callousness toward animals to a lack of recognition that they are 'like us'. But perhaps our innate egocentricity makes us, too often, unaware of others’ sentience...

  4. I think what you said is similar to what I often say, that family members will sometimes do things to each other that strangers would not even consider. Obviously all family members are not evil, but when one does cause suffering, I think it's a result of opportunity as well as not seeing the other person as an equal.

    Most people are at least somewhat receptive to the idea that animals think and have feelings. But perception is definitely colored by what we are taught, and (for one example) Descartes' "biological machine" concept is still being taught, and it even influences the way human infants are treated. It definitely strikes me as institutionalized egocentricity.

    I am so glad you said my blog is opening your eyes to the richness of animal sentience. That's what I'm all about. :)

  5. I am a firm believer that all creatures great and small have as much right to live on this planet as you and I and are on this planet for a purpose, and to knowingly kill life for anything else other than consumption is very wrong, I'm sure this point could also be argued as wrong be pure vegetarians. Pests in the home are a common problem, people are quick to kill them with off the shelf products. I'm sure that if natural alternatives which are just as effective were made common knowledge, more people would use them. These age old repellents can be found in the kitchen pantry in most cases, and the best part of this is that there is no killing involved! just for the record I used talcum powder to cover the ant track leading to my dustbin, with a little help by physically capturing any scouting ants out on their mission to find food and chucking them out into the garden. Within 1 week they were gone for good. There are lots of ways to get rid of unwanted insects in the home which don't involve killing. All life have value! I wish more people would think twice before squishing a bug. Kam.

  6. As I have a real phobia of bees and wasps I find it frightening that there is a possibility that they are consciously aware of my existence!!