Week 7 – “Memory + Consciousness” by Derek Spitters

Siddharth Ramakrishnan asked us to look at consciousness from an alternative perspective. As a society we take a largely anthropocentric view of consciousness, however, it is clear that many animals have the capacity to become self-aware as well.  Dr. Ramakrishnan gave several examples of animals that seemed to be aware of both their surroundings and of themselves. One of these examples was the elephant that touched the mark on its face when it saw the blemish in a mirror. This shows that the elephant had a certain self-image, and it was conscious that its appearance had been altered. Furthermore, pods of whales will go through a greeting process when they encounter one another before they begin any other interactions. This is significant because it shows that these whales are able to differentiate between themselves, other whales from their group, and whales from other groups. Clearly whales have a complex form of society in addition to their well-documented communicative abilities. Another animal Dr. Ramakrishnan mentioned was the octopus. Many cephalopods have the ability to camouflage their appearance, an ability that demonstrates both knowledge of self and surroundings. Octopi can consciously alter their physical appearance. Finally, Dr Ramakrishnan mentioned a different level of consciousness, love, or the consciousness of another’s body. Love can be seen in the animal kingdom as well as in the human sphere. Many species of animals, such as the prairie vole, hold lifelong monogamous relationships with their partners.

One of the most interesting points that I thought Dr. Ramakrishnan brought up was that we often have no problem considering large animals such as dogs, whales, dolphins, and elephants to be conscious. It is more difficult for us to assign consciousness to smaller animals. Clearly, there must be some limit to what life forms have a consciousness. Few would dispute the fact that single celled organisms are not conscious, but where do we draw the line? The answer is that at this point we cannot determine where the boundary of consciousness exists in the animal kingdom. There is currently no scientific way of determining the level of consciousness of a living creature. This is a problem that science has not been able to address, and therefore it has remained largely ignored by the scientific community. Therefore, it is very important that the artistic community helps bring some of these issues to light. Projects such as the “GFB Bunny” bring these issues to the public forum. On the other hand, some people argue that transgenic art itself disregards animal rights. In fact, many biogenetics labs have been targeted by ecoterrorists. Nevertheless, it remains important that these artists continue with their vision, as long as they are mindful of their impact on the animals they use in their artwork.

Another topic that was mentioned in the lectures was altered states of consciousness. Drugs can cause people to lose their sense of consciousness or can at least change it in a very dramatic way. Along a different train of thought, dreams are also an altered state of consciousness. Thus, the question remains, do animals experience changes in their state of consciousness? Do animals dream or is this a purely human phenomenon?

Animal Consciousness:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/

Altered Consciousness:
http://www.hermes-press.com/Perennial_Tradition/altstates.htm

–Derek Spitters

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