Archive for the ‘week7_consciousness’ Category

Week 7/ Anthropomorphism and Elephants/ Patrick Morales

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

I found Dr. Ramakrishnan’s lecture on consciousness to be very enlightening.  The point that he repeated thorough his lecture was: whose consciousness?  This pivotal question reminded me of the individuality of consciousness.   A humans experience on this planet is very different from the experience of a plant or an elephant, or for that matter one human being from another.  Do plants even have a consciousness?  Maybe they have a consciousness that doesn’t require a brain, maybe that brain is somewhere where we haven’t discovered.
No matter how different the experiences of each organism on this planet, anthropomorphism has been a major conduit for non-species interactions with humans.  By imposing human like emotions, behaviors and characteristics we believe we are able to sympathize help or even possibly understand other non-human organisms.  I recently watched a television program that was researching the fact that young elephants that witnessed the murder of their older offspring or parents by poachers or population stabilizers suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome.  The depression is usually attributed to veterans of war or people who have experienced other traumatic events. “Diagnostic symptoms include re-experience such as flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, increased arousal such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger and hyper-vigilance. Per definition, the symptoms last more than six months and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (e.g. problems with work and relationships.)” (  In this case, the recognition of a “human” disorder in the infant elephants has led to the eventual recovery of the animal’s physical and mental well-being.

In the video summary the reporter mentions the elephants “play soccer”.  This is a great example of how we humans apply our culture to the behaviors of other species.  No doubt the “soccer” that the elephants play is not the highly technical and rule driven sport that humans partake in but by saying that elephants “play soccer” in their recovery process we are able to sympathize with their ordeal.          The report and Dr. Ramakrishnan’s lecture are great reminders that the consciousness is a just another plane on which bridges of understanding can be created between different organisms.

week 7/consciousness/akhilrangaraj

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Mr. Ramakrishnan’s lecture this week was quite interesting. I must say that I had never quite thought about one of the topics that he brought up – what exactly does it mean when we say consciousness. In inter-human relations, people project their own feelings on to other people. For example, a person might perceive someone as insulting when the other person was merely stating a fact. Does this happen when we try to describe consciousness in other beings? Ramakrishanan gave cephalopods as an example of one of the difficulties in describing consciousness.

Cephalopods are quite intelligent creatures. Even though they have no skeletons, they have well developed eyes, brains, and nervous systems. They exhibit complex behavior when hunting, and change colors to scare or hide from predators. In the video below, octopuses are shown solving puzzles for rewards.

Does this imply consciousness? In the video, the handlers describe the octopuses’ behavior as “play”. This could simply be the handler projecting his feelings onto the octopus. The behavior can be described as the result of evolutionary pressures – the organisms that were “wired” to act like this survived better than those who didn’t. A octopus using its skin to flash a message to warn another octopus could be construed in a human context of helping, but such altruism could simply be an innate behavior that requires no thought.
Another organism that acts this way are bees. Some varieties of bees use specific “dances” to convey messages to the rest of the hive. These dances have been tracked throughout time, from ancient times to now. Scientists have found a correlation between a specific dance and the direction of the sun and distance. However, these dances vary within species, giving the rise that these behaviors are learned rather than inherited. If the bees are capable of learning, then it means they have some ability to “think”.

Both of these examples, from a human sense do not show conclusive evidence of a distinct consciousness. For us humans, only things like us get the label of consciousness. A human being (in most cases) is able to reason, have a sense of self, and feel emotions. I think this is what we define as consciousness. Very few animals have exhibited any of these characteristics. However, if we step back and remove these anthrocentric conceptions and view animals, we can try to determine things on a higher level. The hive behavior of swarm animals like ants or bees could be construed as a form of group consciousness. The entire hive acts as a single organism, and all act for the benefit for all others. A certain hive reacts with the environment to survive.

Mr. Ramakrishanan’s talk was very interesting. As an engineering, I try to solve problems, but not problems like “what is consciousness?” because that falls under the purview of philosophy. This talk really made me think deeply about consciousness and what it means.

Week 7: Memory and Consciousness/Jasmine Huynh

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

Siddarth Ramakrishnan gave a very interesting presentation during Thursday’s lecture. Two parts of his lecture stand out in my mind. He showed two videos of cephalopods, and just how advanced they are as organisms. One video showed how an octopus was “walking” on the ocean floor. This was fascinating because the ocotpus looked almost human-like in the way it strode across the ground. Cephalopods are an interesting group of animals, particularly because they are much more advanced than one would think. Research has shown that squid actually have larger axons than humans. Axons are a part of the neuron, which are the cells in our brains. In the paper below, scientists conducted an experiment and found that electrical signals can cross from the squid axon to the human red cell. This shows that squid (and cephalopods, in general) are more advanced, and more closely related to us, than we previously thought.

Another topic that Dr. Ramakrishnan discussed was how bees see plane-polarized light. He showed two pictures of an illustrated beam of light. The picture on the left depicted how a human typically sees the beam of light: as one solid beam. Compare this to the bee, which sees a pie-like shape in the beam of light, with different sections appearing as different colors. He also showed a picture of a few flowers, and how we perceive those flowers. We see the entire flower, with all colors represented (somewhat) equally in the picture. Bees, however, only focus on the parts of the flower that are of interest to them for getting food.

We are quick to think that organisms such as squids or bees are far beneath us in mental capacity. However, I think the Dr. Ramakrishnan’s lecture on Thursday proved otherwise. Squid and bees have the ability to focus and change in ways that are impossible to humans. For example, the following video shows a squid camouflaging into its background to hide from a predator: Cuttlefish Video. (

Humans lack such ability. Also, touching on the subject of the bees once again, humans lack the ability to focus on specific points of interest. Human brains may be more developed, but they are still lacking some abilities found in “lower” animals.

I really enjoyed Dr. Ramakrishnan’s lecture because it gave me a new perspective. He drew from a wide background of topics, and managed to link them together very well. I was surprised about the topic of his lecture, mainly because his title states that he is from the Physics Dept. I thought that he would give a scientific-type lecture, but really, he gave a fascinating presentation about how different animals perceive things differently. All the examples he showed contributed to his overall question of “What is consciousness?” The examples with the various organisms and their focusing abilities showed that consciousness holds a unique definition for each animal. For humans, it might be defined as awareness of one’s surroudings, while for bees, it might be zooming in on a flower for food.

Nathan Reynolds/Week 7/Consciousness

Friday, February 20th, 2009

It is interesting how bees are able to use dances and movement patterns to navigate to places of resources, such as flowers containing nectar in the most obvious scenario.  The dance is accurate enough to the point where scout bee can guide his comrades within sight of a resource.  Whether this is a natural instinct or a learned skill seems to be still in debate.  The fact remains, though, that this pattern has been passed down through countless generations.

Additional research points out that in most scenarios, the bees that participate in these dances do so in hives too dark to actually see.  It seems apparent after a few moments of thought, seeing that these hives are more often than not completely enclosed.  So how do the bees know what their scout is saying, much less where the goods are?  The dance tells the bees where to go, but how do they interpret it?  It has been hypothesized that the bees can detect the vibrations from their fellow bee’s movements.  Chemical signaling may also play an important role.

According to an AAAS research article, the scout will initiate the dance, and fellow bees will join in.  This seems like the most plausible method of distributing information.  The dance and patterns can be observed in the link below:


Is this consciousness though?  Do the bees comprehend the meaning and the magnitude of the commands, or are they doing nothing more than reacting to a set of inputs?  Recent advances in science and technology concerning robotics may help answer this question.  A robot or the robot’s brain itself, a computer program, is nothing more than lines of code, dictating to the robot how to behave and react to certain stimulus.  From there, it is a matter of yes/no questions, binary code; ones and zeros:

-          Is that a scout bee?

o   Yes

-          Is it using chemical signaling?

o   Yes

-          Is this accompanied with the waggle dance?

o   Yes

-          New Directive: participate in dance to obtain the location of the pollen/nectar resource

The waggle dance is very intriguing, but it seems to be little more than an instinctual habit, reflecting that the bee is follow a series of complex, but mindless commands.  This is further reinforced by the nature of bees towards hostiles.  In the event that the hive is attacked, bees will attack the assailant without hesitation for the most part.  In honeybees, stinging the hostile will result in the bee’s death.  It could be easily compared with a computer program’s “end” function, in which the program dictates to itself that it is time to shut-down after a series of prerequisites have been met.

By comparison, the Orb Spider could also pose similar senses of consciousness, or extreme cases of instinct.  In individual spider will be born, then leave the group for a solitary life.  The web of an orb spider will have the same beginning from any individual of the same species, but depending on the size, the actual web may have considerable differences in size and shape.  This can be argued yet again as a sign of consciousness, but it is not self-consciousness.

Neither the bee nor the spider seems to realize their own existence.  They simply follow a set of predetermined commands installed in their minds upon birth.  The statement that the bee “learns” the waggle dance should not be used as a definitive statement of self-consciousness.  Relating back to the computer program theory, learning such a dance could be similar to a computer downloading and installing a new set of commands from another machine.  The computer is still not aware of its own existence; it simply follows orders.

This does not mean that other species are incapable of such a consciousness, it just means that it does not seem likely that bees are.



Stokstad, Erik. “Dancing in the Hive.” AAAS. 4 June 08. UCLA. 20 Feb. 09 <>.

week7 \ memory + consciousness \ alberto

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

For this week’s blog, please discuss your thoughts on today’s presentation in class by Siddharth Ramakrishnan. Acceptable topics:

- elephant_x on forehead aware of visual self
- cephalopods_adapt
- wohl/rodent thing?_brain chemistry changes after monogamous pairing
- gay penguins pair bonding / monogamy
- naked mole rat_eusocial, roles, society
- anthropmorphism_alice in wonderland+caterpillar
- dancing bees / polarized light / navigation
- rattlesnake pit organs / infrared
- umwelt_”self-centered world” when studying an organism, need to think about consciousness
- when we talk about consciousness… who’s “we” are we talking about?

HINT. If you want to discuss color/consciousness, you may refer to the podcast we listened to in class. The podcast on color/perception/Goethe/phenomenology is episode 7 (Arthur Zajonc).

HINT #2. If you want to explore consciousness a little more, don’t miss out on Daniel Dennett at the TED conference.

NOTE. I have created a category called “extra_credit”. Those interested in blogging for extra credit, please post under this category.

NOTE #2. Please submit by Sunday (feb 22) at midnight. I will grade down late blogs.