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Unfolding Conscious Awareness from Non-Conscious Perception in Non-Human Animals


Conscious awareness to the events and stimuli around us is a central part of our everyday experience. Yet, are humans the only species that experiences conscious awareness? Since non-verbal species cannot report their internal states, philosophers and scientists have long debated whether the question of animal consciousness is empirically testable, and it still remains a topic of speculation (Dawkins, 2015; Gutfreund, 2017). In the large spectrum of views, some advocate that consciousness may require complex processes like language, a capacity that is unique to adult humans (Dennett, 1995) or a human-like theory of mind (Carruthers, 1998), which may extend to only a few selected species such as great apes (e.g., Krupenye, Kano, Hirata, Call, & Tomasello, 2016; but see Horschler, MacLean, & Santos, 2020). In contrast, others have used neuroanatomical similarities to argue that a number of species (including some birds and octopuses) are likely to be capable of generating conscious experience (see, for example, the Cambridge declaration on consciousness, 2012). Others argue that non-human animals are conscious on the basis of intelligent behaviors which, at least in humans, seem to coincide with conscious awareness as supporting evidence for animal consciousness. These include behaviors such as planning (Osvath & Osvath, 2008), or metacognition (Hampton, Engelberg, & Brady, 2020; Rosati & Santos, 2016), for review see Boly et al., 2013; Griffin & Speck, 2004. Yet, since many complex human behaviors and high-level functions can be performed outside of conscious awareness (i.e., Hassin, 2013), it is difficult to determine whether non-human animals that display intelligent behaviors are indeed conscious or not (Carruthers, 2018). Furthermore, given the ambiguity and difficulty in disentangling conscious from non-conscious processes in non-verbal species, many consider the question of animal consciousness as far from having been resolved (Dawkins, 2015; Gutfreund, 2017). For many, the gap in evidence needed to unambiguously infer animal consciousness is considered “as wide as ever” (Dawkins, 2012).

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