“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states”

On Saturday morning, I was sitting on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the river, meandering from the Rockies to the Arctic. By my side, Emma, a 10 year old Pyrenean Mountain Dog of impeccable character (see below). Me looking at the spectacular view. She sniffing the wind blowing in our faces.

When all at once, from behind us a Golden eagle shot over our heads, maybe 50 feet up.. Wings stiff as a board, surfing the wind. My eyes followed it as it moved up the wooded valley of a creek and then it diminished to a dot and was gone—to join the migration of Golden Eagles south along the Rockies.

Almost immediately a family of Canada geese got underway behind us, so low that we could see their faces and hear their wings press against the air, all the while constantly communicating by voice.

There has been much speculation about the reasons for the characteristic V-Formation of Canada geese. It is said that it allows the wings of each goose to create uplift for the bird following, thereby reducing fatigue and extending the flying range of the flock. Perhaps so. But note that the V- formation allows each goose to see other family members and where they are going (rather important I would think). Canada geese families are close-knit; these birds are wise; emotional bonds are important to them. The angle of the V may be related to the position of the eyes within the head.[Is this leading to anything to do with emotions? Ed]

All of which is a preamble to the news this week that Scientists Declare: Animals Are as Aware as Humans. Animals, presumably, are to take this as a compliment. In what seems to overturn received wisdom, they conclude:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states.”

The neo-cortex is that most recent layer of the brain, on top of the limbic brain.

“Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.”

In short, a neocortex is but one means of being sentient. There are other paths to the same state.

These findings were presented at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference, Cambridge, UK, July 2012. Videos of some of the presentations can be found at that web site.

The conference gave rise to The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Here it is in full:

“On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observations can be stated unequivocally:

  • The field of Consciousness research is rapidly evolving. Abundant new techniques and strategies for human and non-human animal research have been developed. Consequently, more data is becoming readily available, and this calls for a periodic reevaluation of previously held preconceptions in this field. Studies of non-human animals have shown that homologous brain circuits correlated with conscious experience and perception can be selectively facilitated and disrupted to assess whether they are in fact necessary for those experiences. Moreover, in humans, new non-invasive techniques are readily available to survey the correlates of consciousness.
  • The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. (my emphasis) In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states. Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and non- human animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus).
  • Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. (my emphasis) Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated in zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex. Magpies in particular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition.
  • In humans, the effect of certain hallucinogens appears to be associated with a disruption in cortical feedforward and feedback processing. Pharmacological interventions in non-human animals with compounds known to affect conscious behavior in humans can lead to similar perturbations in behavior in non-human animals. In humans, there is evidence to suggest that awareness is correlated with cortical activity, which does not exclude possible contributions by subcortical or early cortical processing, as in visual awareness. Evidence that human and non- human animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks provide compelling evidence for evolutionarily shared primal affective qualia.

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. (My emphasis).Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non- human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

* The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch. The Declaration was publicly proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, by Low, Edelman and Koch. The Declaration was signed by the conference participants that very evening, in the presence of Stephen Hawking, in the Balfour Room at the Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, UK. The signing ceremony was memorialized by CBS 60 Minutes.

No kidding.

That the sentience of other animals has been ‘discovered’ only in 2012 rather undermines the claim that ‘Animals are as aware as humans’—for most humans are very unaware of all this.


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