Consciousness Blog 21 April 2016

Conscious Insects?

Perhaps it is no longer contentious to put forward the idea that consciousness as we superior human beings experience it is merely the roof garden of a skyscraper with multiple levels of sentience, populated at lower levels by animals at more primitive stages of cognitive development.

But for many it may still be a step too far to propose that insects have subjective experience, as has lately been done by Andrew B. Barrona and Colin Klein of Australia's Macquarie University, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, entitled What Insects Can Tell Us About The Origins Of Consciousness.

The language used in such discussions is full of traps. The word 'subjective' according to one dictionary definition means 'influenced by or based on personal beliefs or feelings, rather than based on facts'. That hardly seems to be relevant to the condition of 'what it is like to be an insect'. No doubt an insect can have internal biasses or states, chemical or otherwise, which condition its responses to external stimuli, but I am sure these authors would not dignify these with a label such as 'beliefs'.

“When you and I are hungry, we don't just move towards food; our hunger also has a particular feeling associated with it,” Klein told Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News. “An organism has subjective experience if its mental states feel like something when they happen.” But feel like to whom or what? It was Nagel who famously asked: "What is it like to be a bat?" But as a mammal a bat is already several important cognitive stages ahead of an insect, and in particular it has a cortex.

Klein is attributing self-awareness to the insect, and that is a step onwards from responsiveness. While claiming only to put forward a hypothesis, rather than a conclusion, the authors state that: "In vertebrates the capacity for subjective experience is supported by integrated structures in the midbrain that create a neural simulation of the state of the mobile animal in space. This integrated and egocentric representation of the world from the animal’s perspective is sufficient for subjective experience," and go on to state that: "Recent research mapping insect brains shows that their central nervous system probably performs the same function that the midbrain does in larger animals." That may all be the case, but not many people think that 'self-awareness' resides in the mid-brain.

Said Klein: “The cortex determines much about what we are aware of, but the midbrain is what makes us capable of being aware in the first place. It does so, very crudely, by forming a single integrated picture of the world from a single point of view.”

Well, no subject elicits more dissension than consciousness, so there is no point in hoping for a resolution in this short blog. The importance of the insect issue comes about because of the ongoing attempt to create a functional understanding of the brain. If the mid-brain or its homologue in an insect is capable of self-awareness, then the process of designing a brain-clone in quite different from how it would be if a cortex is needed for that function. To the extent that the mid-brain is responsible for assembling and passing on an integrated picture of the state of an organism to higher cortical functions, which it clearly is, it could be replaced by some kind of ersatz equivalent in a mind-clone, where the body (including the mid-brain) as such no longer exists. Of course, this is to ignore feedback loops between the mid-brain and the cortex, not to mention other sub-cortical regions of the brain, but these could be digitally modelled as well.

Read more in Chapter One of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Origins And Purpose Of Consciousness.


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