W7 Animal Consciousness by Komal Kapoor


Professor Vesna and Dr. Siddharth Ramakrishnan gave various definitions of consciousness, primarily the Webster dictionary’s stating consciousness as “the fact the state of being conscious; awareness of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc”. In that sense Dr. Ramakrishnan claims that animals do have consciousness. They are aware of their own existence, which is apparent in the elephant recognizing itself in the mirror and responding by trying to erase the X marked on its body. This reminded me of our discussion in the TA section last week about the course of human consciousness. As someone pointed out, babies are not self aware until they stop reaching out at the mirror expecting to touch another baby. The instance they can realize the image as their own self, they have started to develop awareness of their own existence.


Other than awareness of their own existence and surroundings, I am not convinced that animals have the high degree of consciousness that Dr. Ramakrishnan claims.  I am certain that animals have emotions, demonstrated in the behavior of pets. But I was disappointed at Dr. Ramakrishnan’s explanation of how the cuttlefish and other cephalopods camouflage. One of the TAs brought up the question of whether or not it was an automated response and the speaker never fully explained it, just stated that he could discuss it in detail after the lecture. So I am not entirely sure if the physical responses are just an evolutionary development to danger or reaction to the environment or actual signs of consciousness. The following video shows people that believe the cuttlefish is changing colors due to its response to itself, but I think it could just be a reaction to a perceived outsider, a threat. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-DusaSVHmM The Ohio State University’s Department of Linguistics defines language as a mode of communication, which many animals definitely exhibit. So does that mean they have consciousness, hence thoughts and memories?


The topic of animal consciousness reminds me of a peculiar chimpanzee at a zoo I visited in China over summer. The chimpanzee was eerily human, a lot like a deaf and mute old man. He would point at our water bottles and stretch out his hand, obviously wanting one himself. He continued beckoning and gesturing for one until someone threw him an empty bottle. He picked it up and realizing it was empty, turned it upside down gesturing with his other hand, clearly upset. Then someone threw him a full water bottle. He unscrewed the cap, took a swig, and help up his hand in gratitude. Strange and fascinating animal behavior and communication.  


<Source: “Animal Communication” by Stefanie Jannedy, Department of Linguists, The Ohio State University. http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/~mcnair/Teaching/3206-S2004/Animal_Communication.htm>

By Komal Kapoor

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