Surface detail of the brain of a macaque monkey

Animal consciousness and thinking

Can animals be said to be conscious? Or to have a mind? The answers are not obvious

Given how difficult it is to study consciousness in people, it is not surprising that the nature of animal consciousness is even less well understood. The debate about the use of animals in research makes this an even more difficult area.

In 1974, Thomas Nagel published an influential article ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ He was arguing that it was essentially impossible to put oneself into someone else’s head and share their subjective experiences. We certainly couldn’t possibly imagine what was going on inside a bat’s brain.

But how about other aspects of consciousness, such as awareness? Do animals have anything approaching theory of mind? The obvious problem with animal studies in this area is that animals cannot tell us what they are thinking. So the causes of any action have to be deduced and their implications inferred.

A classic problem is to distinguish between an association and a thought-through action. A simple creature like a slug will soon learn to avoid an unpleasant stimulus by conditioned learning or association (like Pavlov’s dogs), but that does not mean it has thought about the consequences of the stimulus. But what about a rat? Or a dog? Might they be able to think things through?

Gathering evidence

These issues are beginning to be tackled experimentally. For example, rats have been shown to be able to learn from observation and then apply this knowledge in a different situation – which would not be possible through learning by association. Birds such as crows seem to have similar abilities. Some go as far as to suggest that crows and parrots, the smartest avians, may have the same brainpower as apes.

And there is at least some evidence that macaque monkeys can imagine what others are perceiving (in an experiment, a macaque could tell whether a human handler could see a grape or not, stealing it when the handler could not see it). They may thus possess some level of theory of mind.

Lead image:

Surface detail of the brain of a macaque monkey. The original image was produced from an magnetic resonance image (MRI) scan of a single brain to highlight the surface of the cortex, producing an elaborately folded sheet. This surface data was then processed by an computer algorithm that attempts to capture the 3D curves into a 2D representation using thousands of circles of varying diameter. The resulting image gives a larger dynamic range of detail, even if in a very stylised form.

Parashkev Nachev, Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Psychology, Neuroscience
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development