Rational Animals? Conscious Behavior? Psych 1090 Lecture 16
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring: There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking deeply sobers us again…. Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism, pt. ii
One must be careful, in a relatively young field, that of animal consciousness not to become intoxicated by the excitement of examining the new area, but rather attempt to devise clear, clean, testable hypotheses….
Or, at least, put our knowledge into perspective… And, of course, one issue with respect to consciousness involves rationality…. Because one tends to assume that conscious decisions are rational… That is, that an individual wouldn’t consciously do something stupid…
Now, we’ve spent the semester looking at how nonhumans solve complex problems in ways that are often similar to that of humans…. Nevertheless researchers sometimes find, in subjects that otherwise appear quite intelligent, behavior that doesn’t seem rational
Or rational at least by human standards… Do these ‘irrational’ actions mean that the animals are not intelligent or unconscious? Are consciousness, rationality, and intelligence interchangeable? Are these terms even interchangeable for humans?
Sometimes an animal may respond in a task in a way that is different from that of humans because of a different evolutionary or social history… that is, because behavior patterns different from those that would be exhibited by humans in such a situation increased fitness in the past
Thus the animal may react in a way that, by human standards, seems irrational…. The inability of Boysen’s chimpanzees to inhibit their choice of a larger amount of candies, even after experiencing that whatever they choose will always go to their partner is such an example…it doesn’t happen in the ‘real’ world
So how can we judge animal consciousness if we are having trouble judging animal rationality? How can we devise experiments and collect data without relying on our human biases?
Well, actually, life isn’t quite that difficult, because, most of the time, the intelligent response is indeed also rational, according to both animal and human expectations
Even though there is a big question as to whether it is fair to judge animals on the basis of human-biased tests we’ve seen that most of the time, human and animal cognitive processes seem remarkably similar at least in kind, if not in degree
Remember the studies on the counter-singing wrens and the great tit’s TI And, too, most of the studies that we’ve seen with dolphins, apes, and other birds Most of the time, when the animals seemed to fail, it was usually the fault of the experimental design, not the animals’ intelligence
So, one might suspect that issues of consciousness would follow along the same lines… That any difference would be of degree, rather than kind… But consciousness is a much trickier subject, and experiments are far more difficult
The field of consciousness continues to be rife with controversy…. Of a type and level only seen before with respect to animal ‘language’ And, of course, some believe that the two fields are connected… Because language allows communication about the self
Assertions about nonhuman consciousness range from claims ranging from • emergent levels in Cambrian organisms (Hameroff, 1997) • to levels comparable to humans (Griffin, 1992) • to denial of the need to study such phenomena (Kennedy, 1992; Blumberg and Wasserman, 1995) at all….
But consciousness studies have become fashionable, and thus must proceed in as scientific a manner as possible Though we will see that isn’t a simple matter at all!
The main issues: • Defining conscious behavior • How do we define it? • How is it related to • awareness? • intentionality? • cognitive ability? • Do we gain anything by positing conscious behavior?
To examine consciousness, scientists attempt to simplify, contrast, and isolate its aspects; for example, it has been studied as • working memory • controlled (vs. autonomic) behavior • attention (i.e., related to goal selection, vigilance, spatial orientation, or focus)
I propose we look at it as a way of processing information in the environment…. which has drawbacks because it doesn’t deal directly with describing what one is experience individually but has advantages with respect to transparency of what is being studied
Two main aspects of consciousness are generally studied: perceptual and reflexive consciousness Perceptual consciousness is the simpler aspect to study… It simply involves awareness of one’s sensory perceptions:
Perceptual consciousness assumes that an organism is aware that it is processing information, and maybe of the senses being used (e.g., is searching for a particular color or scent, or trying to label it in some way) but is not necessarily aware that it is aware of the process
So think of how you know that something is “red” or “green” Or how you recognize that something is the wrong color…. You don’t necessarily go through the thoughts of “oh, wow, aren’t I smart that I know that broccoli shouldn’t be orange” You just process “wrong color”
BUT a critical issue is that perception isn’t consistent across species… So just because you see something as “white”, doesn’t mean that a parrot or a bee—that see in ultraviolet— Also see it the same way… And being aware of this fact takes us to the next level..
Thus, reflective consciousness is quite a bit more complicated… It does involve awareness of one’s thoughts, executive control and attribution of mental states to others—Theory of Mind
To determine human consciousness, we often rely on self-report… We ask “What were you thinking when you did X?” But we can’t do this for animals… Even those with some ‘language’ abilities
So, the goal of this lecture is to Posit simple stances on • brain function • evolutionary continuity • relationships between cognitive abilities and awareness in order to provoke debate on the issues
Perceptual and reflective consciousness are functions of a brain’s associative and representational capacities… The richer these capacities, the greater the possible scope of consciousness BUT…these capacities—and their similarity to those of humans—
do not ensure consciousness only the possibility of consciousness And, species, within their maximum possible level of consciousness, exhibit different extents of awareness appropriate to the particular situation
For example: Humans, presumably conscious, often act without conscious awareness of the factors controlling their behavior… If they did not…. • a lot of psychiatrists would be out of work • many ‘automatic’ behavior patterns would not exist
I start by proposing a separation between ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’ I call complex, higher-order cognition ‘awareness’ and this awareness can be a level of consciousness (e.g., perceptual consciousness) without being isomorphic to ‘full’ consciousness
Some precedent for this division exists in the early work of David Chalmers, who is known as one of the kingpins of the recent writings on consciousness even though he then redefines awareness as coherent with consciousness…
A caveat: Parallels between studies of ‘animal’ consciousness and that of ‘animal’ language and ‘animal’ counting suggest • care that animals are not excluded simply because they do not match human abilities exactly • care that simpler categories are not overinterpreted so that the fullest level of competence is not missed
These points are particularly important, because, as we have seen, animals are often capable of doing more than we can determine by our relatively primitive means of study but they also sometimes are incapable of doing tasks at the same level as humans
If, for example, we say that an animal’s ability to label a few objects or to request a few objects is “language” We are then unlikely to examine more complicate aspects of their cognitive or communicative abilities… for example, simple grammars, recursion, etc…
To see just how complicated this can be, let’s look at “insight”…the raven-string studies are an example… “Insight” is usually considered an entirely unconscious process… in which an animal is unaware of how current information is being processed…
Or how multiple sets of information are integrated to achieve a solution to the posited problem… But insight must have at least some rudimentary level of awareness… The individual—human or nonhuman—is clearly aware of the need to solve the problem And of the fact that relevant information exists….
In general, researchers studying animal cognition assume subjects • form representations about perceived data • then process such information…. That is, already exhibit some level of perceptual awareness…. But different levels of awareness are likely necessary for different tasks
Which in and of itself is important because it means that if we don’t design the tasks appropriately—i.e., with enough complexity— We might not see consciousness that does indeed exist
I therefore posit levels of awareness, roughly paralleling those of Thomas’ (1980, 1996) hierarchy of cognitive behavior I then suggest what level of awareness appears necessary for accomplishing each task The contrast between these levels will help us analyze the issue
Simple associative learning: level 0 A rat presses a lever at the appearance of a specific green block to get food; no other objects are present and no other responses are required We aren’t even discussing match-to-sample or some kind of choice; this is ‘errorless’ learning
Response may be a ‘habit system’ of the type proposed by Mishkin and his colleagues… a neural pathway that stores response tendencies but no representation—no concept of ‘green’, ‘block’, etc. In nature, such behavior likely corresponds to fixed-action patterns…
Simple choice of ‘nonmatching’: Level 1 Pigeon learns to peck green button when given a red sample and red/green choices As we’ve seen, the pigeon actually doesn’t learn to choose green but rather learns to avoid red
It doesn’t learn ‘greenness’, ‘redness’ or necessarily realizes that it is even being trained on ‘oddity’, but to follow a rule… But it doesn’t seem aware of rule or of following it…. because it doesn’t immediately transfer to new, similar situations
The task is, however, fairly unnatural: For example, to avoid pebbles mixed with grain, the pigeon would not learn to recognize pebbles but rather would learn to recognize grain
Evidence for “learning sets”: Level 2 The organism, after solving a series of discrimination problems with new object pairs, i.e., to always choose the striped object even if the stripes are different colors or sizes acquires a win/stay-lose/shift accuracy after ~ 200 problems
This subject has not only acquired a rule…. something about stripes leading to food but also is aware enough that it can transfer the rule across situations with significant savings in time— Though not enough for immediate transfer to novel types of stripes
In nature, such behavior may be exhibited by some foragers…. We’ve seen that hummingbirds that fully empty a flower’s nectar—i.e., win-shift— quickly transfer across inflorescences but do not transfer quickly to win-stay in an operant laboratory setting
Concepts of categories: Level 3 The subject, after learning to sort specific familiar items into ‘food’ and ‘not food’ (without sampling)…. Correctly sorts untrained items that it has seen before but that have not been part of training
The subject sorts not only with respect to the category rule, but remembers previous experiences to help sort the new items…. i.e., was this thing edible? that is, can integrate data, and works off of some aware representation/memory
The integration of information may not be performed consciously… which is why we can claim only a level 3 We have no simple way of questioning the animal to determine why it is making the sort the way it is but we know the sort is via a concept