Animal Consciousness and the Quest for Understanding

Header Image: Carl Safina at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. These baby elephants were orphaned by poaching and ivory traffickers, rescued by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya.

Excerpted from Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel. @ Carl Safina. Published by Henry Holt Co.

Several adult elephants were resting with their young in the shade of a palm, fanning their ears in the heat. An observing scientist opined that the elephants we were watching, “might simply be moving to and away from heat gradients, without experiencing anything at all. I have no way of knowing,” he declared, “whether that elephant is any more conscious than this bush.”

No way of knowing? For starters, a bush behaves quite differently from an elephant. The bush shows no sign of having a mental experience, of showing emotions, of making decisions, of protecting its offspring. On the other hand, humans and elephants have nearly identical nervous and hormonal systems, senses, milk for our babies; they show fear and aggression appropriate to the moment. Insisting that an elephant might be no more conscious than a bush wasn’t a better explanation for the elephants’ behavior than concluding that an elephant is aware of what’s going on around it. My colleague thought he was being the objective scientist. Quite the opposite; he was forcing himself to ignore the evidence. That’s not scientific—at all. Science is about evidence.


Elephant calf, Amboseli National Park, Kenya. This elephant was orphaned by poaching and ivory traffickers, rescued by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya. Credit: Carl Safina

Who are we here with? What kinds of minds populate this world?

This is hazardous terrain. We won’t assume that other animals are or aren’t conscious. We’ll look at evidence and go where it leads. It’s too easy to assume wrongly, then carry those assumptions around for, say, centuries.

In the fifth century B.C. E., the Greek philosopher Protagoras had pronounced, “Man is the measure of all things.” In other words, we feel entitled to ask the world, “What good are you?”

We assume that all things should be compared to us. Such an assumption makes us overlook a lot. We say, “Humans and animals” as though life falls into just two categories: us, and all-of-them. Yet we’ve trained elephants to haul logs from forests; in laboratories we’ve run rats through mazes to study learning, let pigeons tap targets to teach us psychology 101, we study flies to learn how our DNA works, give monkeys infectious diseases to develop human cures; in our homes and cities dogs become the guiding protectors for human companions who see only by the light of four-legged eyes. Throughout all this intimacy, we maintain a certain insecure insistence that “animals” are not like us—though we are animals. Could any relationship be more fundamentally miscomprehended?

To understand elephants, we must delve into topics like consciousness, awareness, intelligence, emotion—. When we do, we realize with dismay that there aren’t standard definitions. Philosophers, psychologists, ecologists, and neurologists are the blind men all feeling and describing different parts of the same proverbial elephant. But their lack of agreement frees us to do a little of our own thinking.

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So let’s start by defining consciousness. The definition we’ll use is: Consciousness is the thing that feels like something. That simple definition comes from Christof Koch, who  heads the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle. Cut your leg, that’s physical. If the cut hurts, you’re conscious. The part of you that knows the cut hurts, that feels and thinks, is your mind. Relatedly, the ability to feel sensations is called sentience. The sentience of humans, birds, beetles, clams, jellyfish, and trees ranges on a sliding scale, from complex in people to seemingly none in plants. Cognition refers to the capacity to perceive and acquire knowledge and understanding. Thought is the process of considering something that’s been perceived. Like everything about living things, thought also happens on a wide-ranging sliding scale. Thinking can take the form of a jaguar assessing how to approach a wary peccary from directly behind, an archer aiming at a target, or a person considering a proposal of marriage. Sentience, cognition, and thinking are overlapping capacities and processes of conscious minds.

Consciousness is a bit overrated. Heartbeat, breathing, digestion, metabolism, immune system, healing of cuts and fractures, internal timers, sexual cycling, pregnancy, growth—all function without consciousness. Under general anesthesia we remain very much alive though not conscious. And during sleep our unconscious brains are working hard, cleansing, sorting, rejuvenating—. Your body is run by a competent staff that’s been on the job since before the company acquired consciousness. Too bad you can’t personally meet your team.

We might imagine consciousness as the computer screen we see and interact with, that is run by software code that we can’t detect and don’t have a clue about. As science author and former Rolling Stone magazine editor Tim Ferris wrote, “One’s mind neither controls nor comprehends most of what’s going on in one’s brain.


Caretaker with orphaned elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. These baby elephants were orphaned by poaching and ivory traffickers, rescued by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya. Credit: Carl Safina

”Why be conscious at all? Consciousness seems necessary when we must judge things, plan, and make decisions. How does consciousness—elephant, human, whatever—arise in the mush of our physical cells and the mesh of their electrical and chemical impulses? How does a brain create a mind? No one knows how nerve cells, also called neurons, create consciousness. What we know: Consciousness can be affected by brain damage. So consciousness does happen in the brain. As Nobel-winning mind-brain scientist Eric R. Kandel wrote in 2013, “Our mind is a set of operations carried out by our brain.” Consciousness seems to somehow result from, and depend on, neurons networking.

How many networked neurons are needed? No one knows. Jellyfish, probably not conscious; worms, maybe so. With about one million brain cells, honeybees recognize flowers and remember their locations. Their “waggle dance” communicates to fellow hive-mates the direction, distance, and richness of nectar they’ve found. Bees “show superb expertise,” says famed neurologist Oliver Sachs. Intriguingly, honeybees will interrupt a colleague’s waggle dance if they’ve experienced trouble at the same flower source, such as a brush with a predator like a spider. Honeybees subjected by researchers to simulated attack show, said researchers, “the same hallmarks of negative emotions that we find in humans.” Even more intriguingly, honeybee brains contain the same “thrill-seeker” hormones that in human brains drive some people to consistently seek novelty. If those hormones do deliver some tingle of motivation to the bees, it means they are conscious. Certain highly social wasps can recognize individuals by their faces, something previously believed the sole domain of a few elite mammals. “It is increasingly evident,” says Sachs, “that insects can remember, learn, think, and communicate in quite rich and unexpected ways.”


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Can elephants, insects, or any creature really be conscious without the big wrinkly cerebral cortex where human thinking happens?

Turns out, yes; even humans can be. A 30-year-old man named Roger lost about 95 percent of his cortex to a brain infection. Roger can’t remember the decade before the infection, can’t taste or smell, and has great difficulty forming new memories. Yet he knows who he is, recognizes himself in a mirror and in photographs, and generally acts normal around people. He can use humor and can feel embarrassed. All with a brain that does not resemble a human brain.

The common human notion that humans alone experience consciousness is backwards. Human senses have evidently dulled during civilization. Many animals are superhumanly alert—just watch these elephants when anything changes—their detection equipment exquisitely tuned for the merest crackle of danger or whiff of opportunity. In 2012, scientists drafting the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness concluded that “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses,” have nervous systems capable of consciousness. (Octopuses use tools and solve problems as skillfully as do most apes—and they’re mollusks.) Science is confirming the obvious: other animals hear, see, and smell with their ears, eyes, and noses; are frightened when they have reason for fright and feel happy when they appear happy. As Christoff Koch writes, “Whatever consciousness is…dogs, birds, and legions of other species have it… They, too, experience life.”

Our dog Jude was sleeping on the rug, dreaming of running, his wrists flicking, when he let out a long, eerily muffled howl. Chula, our other dog, trotted over. Jude startled awake and leapt to his feet barking loudly, as a person wakes from a night terror with the vivid image and a scream, taking a few moments to get oriented.

Each line we attempt to draw crisply between living things, as between elephants and humans, nature has already blurred with the smudgy brush of deep relation.


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But what about living things with no nervous system? 

With no apparent nervous system, plants make the same chemicals—such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate—that serve as neurotransmitters and help create mood in animals including humans. And plants have signaling systems that work basically as do animals’, though slower. Michael Pollan observes metaphorically that, “Plants speak in a chemical vocabulary we can’t directly perceive or comprehend.” That’s not to say that plants experience sensations, necessarily, but they do some intriguing things. We detect chemicals by smell and taste; plants sense and respond to chemicals in air, soil, and on themselves. Plants’ leaves turn to track the sun. Growing roots approaching an obstacle or toxin sometimes alter course prior to contact. Plants have reportedly responded to the recorded sound of a munching caterpillar by producing defensive chemicals. Plants attacked by insects and herbivores emit “distress” chemicals causing adjacent leaves and neighboring plants to mount chemical defenses, and alerting insect-killing wasps to move in, blunting the attack. Flowers are plants’ way of telling bees and other pollinators that nectar is ready. But except for insectivorous and sensitive-leaved plants, most plants behave too slowly for the human eye. Gazing across a meadow, Pollan wrote that he, “found it difficult to imagine the invisible chemical chatter, including the calls of distress, going on all around—or that these motionless plants were engaged in any kind of ‘behavior’ at all.” Charles Darwin concluded his book, The Power of Movement in Plants, with, “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle [root]… acts like the brain of one of the lower animals… receiving impression from the sense organs and directing the several movements.” Granted, we are treading into a vast minefield of potential misinterpretation. Like Cynthia Moss with elephants, the late botanist Tim Plowman wasn’t interested in comparing plants to people. He appreciated them as plants. “They can eat light,” he said; “Isn’t that enough?”

 “Is an elephant conscious?”

The best answer to the question, is that all the evidence indicates widespread consciousness. So the interesting question now is, ‘What is consciousness like for other animals?’ Consciousness might seem like a no-brainer to most pet lovers, but I can almost hear some people say, “Not so fast.” Many researchers and science writers insist that we simply have no way to access the mental experience of animals. I understand where they’re coming from. But I think they’re mistaken. We now know more than we did.

Animal behavior is a young science. The simple fact that chickens establish a “pecking order” was not formally recognized until the 1920s. Also in the 1920s, Margaret Morse Nice first discovered that songbirds defend territories—and that’s one of the most basic reasons they sing.

To establish animal behavior as a science, the pioneering behaviorists of the mid 20 the Century such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch had to purge centuries of folklore and superstition (owls presage death, wolves are the devil’s familiars) and fables that posed animals as caricatures of human impulses (grasshoppers are lazy, tortoises persistent, foxes tricky). The new scientists were wonderful observers. They succeeded in stripping metaphorical projections that had built up on many animals like old coats of paint. They had to prove that watching animals could be objective work, and they did. For their studies of honeybee dance- language, fish courtship, and how baby geese “imprint” on the first moving object they see, von Frisch, Tinbergen, and Lorenz shared a Nobel PrizeThe three curious naturalists must have felt euphoric.


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But for a question such as, ‘What does an elephant feel when she nurses her baby?,’ there was nothing to go on. No one had watched free-living animals’ real lives. Brain science was in its infancy. So speculation about their feelings could only draw on our own feelings—leading ourselves in circles. Speculation was messy guessing that one must avoid. Just observe how many minutes the elephant nurses the offspring. There’s no way to know how the elephant feels. Even the noted elephant communication expert Joyce Poole has explained, “I was trained to view non-human animals as behaving in ways that don’t necessarily involve any conscious thinking.”

My own initiation into formal training included the classic directive: Do not attribute human mental experiences—thoughts, or emotions—to other animals. (Doing so is called “anthropomorphism.”) I appreciate that. We shouldn’t assume that animals (or for that matter lovers, spouses, kids, and parents) “must be” thinking and feeling just as we would if we were them. They’re not us.

But it wasn’t that the question of animal thoughts and emotions awaited better data; it was that the whole subject became verboten. Observation hardened into a rigid mental straitjacket. Professional behaviorists could describe what they saw, period. Description—and only description—became “the” science of animal behavior. Wondering what feelings or thoughts might motivate behavioral acts became totally taboo. Radio blackout. You could say, “The elephant positioned herself between her calf and the hyena.” But if you said, “The mother positioned herself to protect her baby from the hyena,” that was out of bounds; it was anthropomorphic. We can’t know the mother’s intent. And that was stifling.

In establishing the study of behavior as a science, it had been helpful to make “anthropomorphism” a word that raised a red flag. But as lesser intellects followed the Nobel- winning pioneers, “anthropomorphism” became a pirate flag. If the word was hoisted, an attack was imminent. You wouldn’t get your work published. And in the academic realm of publish or perish, jobs were at stake.


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Even the most informed, logical inferences about other animals’ motivation, emotion and awareness could wreck your professional prospects. The mere question could. In the 1970s, a book humbly titled The Question of Animal Awareness caused such an uproar that many behaviorists relegated its author, Donald Griffin, to the fringes of the profession. Griffin was no upstart; he’d been famous for decades as the luminary who solved the problem of how bats use sonar to navigate. So he was a bit of a genius, actually. But raising The Question was simply too much for many orthodox colleagues. Suggesting that other animals can feel anything wasn’t just a conversation-stopper; it was a career killer. In 1992, readers of the exclusive journal Science were warned by one academic writer that studying animal perceptions, “isn’t a project recommend to anyone without tenure. It was no joke. Seriously.

By banning what was considered anthropomorphic, the behaviorists perpetuated the opposite error. They institutionalized the all-too-human notion that only humans are conscious and can feel anything. (The sense that everything revolves around us is called anthropocentrism.) Certainly, projecting feelings onto other animals can lead to us misunderstanding their motivation. But denying that they had motivation guaranteed misunderstanding it.

Not assuming other animals had thoughts and feelings was good science. Insisting they did not was bad science. Peculiarly, many behaviorists—who are biologists— chose to overlook the core process of biology: each newer thing is a slight tweak on something older. Everything humans do and possess came from somewhere. Before humans could be assembled, evolution needed to have most of the parts in stock, and those parts were developed for earlier models. We inherited them. Witness, for instance, the journey of jointed legs: from arthropod to quadruped to bipedal people. A frog’s upper rear leg-bone is a femur, no less than in a chicken, as in a child. Thus we trace transformation from amphibian to flying bird to triathlete. A creature that sleeps is sleeping, species notwithstanding. One that sneezes is sneezing. Species differ—but are often not very different. Only humans have human minds. But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons. Of course, we can see skeletons in elephants. We can’t see their minds. But we can see their nervous system, and the workings of minds in the logic and limits of behaviors. From skeletons to brains, the principle is the same, and if we were to assume anything, it might be that minds, too, exist on a sliding scale.

That’s not what happened.

Professional animal behaviorists slid a hard divider between the nervous system of the entire animal kingdom and one of its species—humans. Denying the possibility that any other animals have any thoughts and feelings reinforced what we all most want to hear: We are special. Utterly different. Better. Best. (Talk about projecting!)


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For decades, scientists who stepped out of bounds continued to face withering scorn from colleagues. A few new revolutionaries who were not trained behaviorists—Jane Goodall being perhaps the first such pioneer—did just that. Goodall recalls that after her first studies of chimpanzees, when she later enrolled as a doctoral student at Cambridge, “It was a bit shocking to be told I’d done everything wrong. Everything. I shouldn’t have given them names. I couldn’t talk about their personalities, their minds or their feelings. Those are unique to us.”

To this day, anthropo-phobia remains widespread among behavioral scientists and science writers who ape the outdated hyper-caution of orthodox behaviorists who trained them. We are not to attribute to other animals any emotions that humans have, they say to each other—and to their students, who parrot their rigidity and feel professional.

When someone says you can’t attribute human sensations to animals, they forget that human sensations are animal sensations. Inherited sensations, using inherited nervous systems. Simply deciding that other animals can’t have any emotions humans feel is a cheap way to get a monopoly on all the world’s feelings and motivation. People who’ve systematically watched or known animals realize the absurdity of this. But many still don’t. “The dilemma remains,” wrote author Caitrin Nicol as I was writing this book, “how to get an accurate understanding of the animals’ nature and (if appropriate) emotions, without imposing on them assumptions born of a distinctly human understanding of the world.”

But tell me, what “distinctly human understanding” hampers our understanding of other animals’ emotions? Is it our sense of pleasure, pain, sexuality, hunger, frustration, self- preservation, defense, parental protection? Ours doesn’t prevent us from understanding theirs; it helps us. But OK; doesn’t that lead us right back to mistaken assumptions? Not if we incorporate all we’ve learned. Consider romantic love. It is obvious that elephants, with their matriarchal families, wandering males, absence of male-female pair bonds, and no male care of young, don’t have romantic love. And because it’s so, elephant researchers don’t make that mistake. So, evidence and logic can be trustworthy guides. In fact, one term for evidence + logic is: “science.”


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What reason is there to disbelieve that an elephant who seems happy, is happy? We recognize hunger and thirst while they’re eating and drinking, exhaustion when they tire; on what grounds may we deny them joy and happiness as they’re playing with their children and their families? Yet the science of animal behavior has long operated with that bias—and that’s unscientific. In science, the simplest interpretation of evidence is often best. When elephants seem joyous in joyful contexts, joy is the simplest interpretation of the evidence. Their brains are similar to ours, they make the same hormones involved in human emotions—and that’s evidence too. So let’s not assume. But let’s not bury evidence.

When a dog is scratching the door,” a person steeped in fear of anthropomorphism would insist that we cannot know whether the dog “wants” to go out. (Meanwhile, of course, your dog is thinking, ‘Hellooo—let me out; I don’t want to pee in the house.’) Obviously, the dog wants to go out. And if you insist on ignoring the evidence, have a mop handy.

For More on This Subject, You can Purchase Carl’s Book “Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel.” Click The Image Below to see it on Amazon. 

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Arts of Thought Carl Safina
Carl Safina

Carl Safina’s work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan, and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. He has a PhD in ecology from Rutgers University. Safina is the inaugural holder of the endowed chair for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, and is founding president of the not-for-profit organization,The Safina Center. He hosted the 10-part PBS seriesSaving the Ocean with Carl Safina. His writing appears inThe New York Times,Audubon,Orion, and other periodicals and on the Web at National Geographic News and Views, Huffington Post, and

He lives on Long Island, New York with his wife Patricia, the two best beach-running dogs in the world, some chickens, a couple of parrots, and Frankie the kingsnake.

Carl Safina’s work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan, and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. He has a PhD in ecology from Rutgers University. Safina is the inaugural holder of the endowed chair for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University, and is founding president of the not-for-profit organization,The Safina Center. He hosted the 10-part PBS seriesSaving the Ocean with Carl Safina. His writing appears inThe New York Times,Audubon,Orion, and other periodicals and on the Web at National Geographic News and Views, Huffington Post, and
He lives on Long Island, New York with his wife Patricia, the two best beach-running dogs in the world, some chickens, a couple of parrots, and Frankie the kingsnake.

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