Here you may find the abstract for each speaker at the Harvard MBB Symposium on “Animal Consciousness”

Clicking on a speaker’s photo will redirect to his or her conference page.

Colin Allen

Colin Allen

Professor of Cognitive Science and History & Philosophy of Science; Director, Indiana University Cognitive Science Program.

Title: “Learning About Animal Consciousness from Animal Learning.”
Abstract: It is often asserted that nonhuman animals live only in the present moment. But even single-celled organisms integrate inputs through time in order to drive adaptive behavior. Since the time of William James, several scientists and philosophers have argued on primarily introspective grounds that conscious experience cannot be understood without taking its temporal dynamics seriously. Many learning tasks also involve a significant temporal dimension, and there is independent evidence from humans that consciousness is more intimately involved in some types of learning than in others. Because these types of learning can and have been investigated in nonhuman animals, I will explore the question of what animal learning can reveal about animal consciousness.

Michael A. Cohen

Michael A. Cohen

McGovern Institute of Brain Research, Dept of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Title: “Using models of human consciousness as a foundation for studying animal consciousness.”

Abstract: Recent empirical results have converged on a model of human consciousness in which the hallmark of conscious processing is the synchronized, large-scale, synchronized activation of the parietal-prefrontal networks. Numerous findings from both behavioral psychophysics and functional neuroimaging have indicated that the persistent activation of this particular network neatly distinguishes between conscious and unconscious processing. In this talk, I will review the main results in support of this model, with specific emphasis on the paradigms used to manipulate whether or not a particular stimulus reaches conscious awareness. In addition, I will discuss how the methods and framework established in the study of human consciousness can be used as a foundation for studying animal consciousness and can serve as a road-map for future empirical work.

Daniel C. Dennett

Greenland Phil Wickens dcd

University Professor, Tufts University; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University; Co-Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, Tufts University.

Title: “The Pendulum of Possibilities.”
Abstract: How smart are animals? It depends on the species, of course, and recent research has surprised us in both directions. “Romantic” investigators set out to demonstrate how clever a species is, while skeptical “killjoy” investigators design experiments to expose unexpected cluelessness. Both “sides” have their successes and failures, and the failures are often more informative, so the disagreements are fruitful generators of knowledge. Science itself doesn’t take sides: our attitudes towards animals should be informed by whatever we can learn about animal minds, not by traditional myths or oversimplifications.

David Edelman

David Edelman_Headshot 2

Professor of Neuroscience, Bennington College.

Title: “Awareness on the Horizon: Vision, Memory, and the Evolution of Consciousness.”
Abstract: Animal vision was arguably the most significant sensory innovation of the Cambrian period. Fossil evidence, together with comparative anatomical studies, suggest that the many varieties of eyes found in living invertebrates appeared within a span of less than 30 million years. I argue here that the ability to resolve objects at great distances was the key evolutionary innovation that precipitated the appearance of consciousness. The main rationale for this argument is the idea that resolving distant objects effectively opened an extended temporal window which allowed for both monitoring of salience (e.g., predators, prey) and making predictions long before any action is necessary. Monitoring a dynamic visual scene and making useful predications are necessarily predicated on an ongoing linkage between perception and memory. It has been argued elsewhere that primary consciousness arises from precisely this linkage (Edelman 1989). Allowing that single-compartment eyes with focusing lenses are a requirement for distance vision, one could plausibly argue that animals equipped with such eyes possess reentrant circuitry connecting perception and memory, and therefore experience conscious states.
The octopus eye has been cited as a beautiful example of evolutionary convergence because its design–consisting of a single vitreous compartment, focusing lens, seven ocular muscles, and retinal sheet–in many ways resembles that of the vertebrate eye. Moreover, the predatory capabilities of octopus and other coleoid cephalopods, as well as their sophisticated learning and memory faculties, strongly suggest the preeminence of vision among these animals’ various sensory systems. In light of the foregoing, I argue that the major attributes of coleoid cephalopod vision–from the various submodal properties that are most salient to the behaving animal to the electrophysiological signatures of those properties and their attendant neuroanatomical substrates–justify consideration of the coleoid cephalopod group as a test case for the possibility of consciousness in animals quite distant from the vertebrate line. More importantly, such a test case offers the promise of identifying universal neuroanatomical and neurophysiological properties of conscious states.

Peter Godfrey-Smith

Peter Godfrey-Smith

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Title:  “On the Origins and Distribution of Consciousness.”
Abstract: I’ll look at how subjective experience, in both simple and more complex forms, might have evolved. The talk will take the form of a quick tour of the tree of life and the evolution of animals, and I’ll then look at a few proposals for making sense of the origin of experience and consciousness.
Bio: Peter Godfrey-Smith grew up in Sydney, Australia and studied at the University of Sydney and UC San Diego. He taught at Stanford, the Australian National University, and Harvard before moving to the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is currently Distinguished Professor of Philosophy. His main research interests are in the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of mind. He has written four books, including Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection, which won the 2010 Lakatos Award, and Philosophy of Biology, just released with Princeton.

Anna Henchman

Henchman photo

Assistant Professor of English Literature, Boston University.

Title: “Worm Minds and Worm Work in Darwin’s Last Book”
Abstract: This paper focuses on Charles Darwin’s challenges to anthropocentrism in his final book The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms. Darwin’s 1881 book is a testament to the extraordinary work of millions of ordinary earthworms that process the turf of the English countryside. Few creatures, he claims, “have played so important a part in the history of the world.” This book marks a pivotal moment in which thinkers are exploring what Janet Browne terms the “real ancestral links between animals and mankind.” It is also, crucially, written before the popularity of behaviorism and other critiques of what was simplistically dismissed as “anthropomorphism” shut down much speculation about how animal minds resemble and differ from those of humans. Scientists are not yet scorned for considering that animals might have subjective experiences, and that there might be “any inner processes between stimulus and response.”
Darwin’s writings on worms show how much was at stake in attributing states of feeling to animals at this time. Probing distinctions between responsiveness and awareness, Darwin investigates worms’ reliance on touch and acts of decision-making. He attempts to train his readers out of anthropocentric blindnesses to either the inner experiences of individual worms or the glacial movements of continents. Focusing earthworms’ “mental power” and muscular force, Darwin asks how subjects from sentience to agriculture look different when we begin with earthworms as our model for perception, cognition, and civilization. The way that worms process and rearrange matter enables plants to grown and decaying bodies to turn back into plants. Suggests that worm work is more effective than that of tool-wielding farmers, Darwin portrays agricultural human beings as rude arrivistes attempting to emulate the work of worms.

Philip Low

Dr. Philip Low_Headshot

Founder, Chairman, and CEO of NeuroVigil, Inc.; Research Affiliate, MIT Media Laboratory; Advisor to the White House and the US-Israel Science and Technology Foundation on health, medicine, and neuroscience policy.

Title: “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness: Causes and Consequences”
Abstract: On July 7th 2012, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was ratified by an international expert panel of neuroscientists, including neurophysiologists, behaviorists, computational neuroscienstists, cognitive neuroscientists, neuroanatomists and neuropharmacologists in Cambridge, UK. This document summarizes decades of peer- reviewed research presented at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals, and rebukes the Cartesian notion that non-human animals are mere biological machines devoid of states for which consciousness is necessary, including feeling states. Indeed if one assumes that higher cognitive states are generated by the nervous system, one cannot, regardless of any operational definition of consciousness, simultaneously assume a priori, given the striking neurobiological similarities across species, that humans alone possess the neurobiological substrates of consciousness. In this talk, I will discuss, in addition to the historical genesis of the Declaration and the associated politically-based hesitations of colleagues in the scientific community, some of the Declaration’s supporting data including peer-reviewed findings which illustrate that the most evolutionary advanced part of the brain, the neocortex, is indeed not necessary for the production of the most evolutionary advanced neurophysiological patterns, including highly elaborate sleep patterns which were recently found in zebra finches. I will also discuss the role the Declaration can play in fostering an understanding of non-human cognition in lay communities, including the legal and judicial sectors, and the need to revise animal research protocols and devise paradigms for human based research which are less wasteful than the current paradigms wherein a pharmaceutical drug has a less than 6% chance of being tested in humans following a significant investment in animal research. I will furthermore discuss examples of non-invasive neurobiological techniques for translational research which do not require the sacrifice of experimental animals. Moreover, I will discuss the successful use of advanced neurotechnologies as a tested paradigm to accelerate human pharmaceutical clinical trials, on pathologies ranging from Down Syndrome, to Autism, OCD, PTSD and TBI and will demonstrate how such technology can be deployed as a “computational patch” for a number of conditions including Locked-In Syndrome.

Jaak Panksepp

Panksepp Head Shot

Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science and Professor of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, Washington State University.

Title: “The Neuroscientific Case for Homologous Primal Emotional Feelings in All Mammals: With a Focus on Psychiatric Implications.”
Abstract: The subjective emotional experiences of other animals can be fathomed with affective neuroscience approaches. Abundant evidence affirms that all vertebrates are sentient creatures. Substantive neuroscientific understanding of seven primal emotions has been achieved—namely SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC and PLAY. This knowledge illuminates the foundations of consciousness, and suggests novel treatments for psychiatric disorders. Three new treatments for depression will be summarized.

Katharine Boynton Payne


Researcher in Bioacoustics, Cornell University; Founder, The Elephant Listening Project.

Title: “Evidence of Mind in Humpback Whales and Forest Elephants.”
Abstract: It’s my impression that we lack a uniformly accepted definition of consciousness, but that most attempts at such a definition include the notion of awareness. Awareness was the starting-point for Donald Griffin, whose 1976 book, The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience, laid out a set of arguments for awareness in non-human animals. Griffin had a double purpose, which underlay most of his work during the last decades of his life. As a scientist he felt that the robotic explanation of animal behavior then in vogue was misguided; as a humanist he felt that disallowing consciousness to all except the human species was a way of justifying human abuse of animals. If consciousness was shown to exist as widely as Griffin believed, that would be a step toward our species becoming more humane. Don was a friend of mine throughout his long quest and took an interest in my field studies of whales and elephants. I’ll present a few highlights from these studies for your consideration.
First, during the years between 1969 and 1975, I, with Roger Payne, Peter Tyack, and others, examined singing behavior in humpback whales. These are middle-sized migratory baleen whales who exist in all of the world’s oceans. Male humpback whales sing long, complex songs in tropical waters during their breeding season, every population singing a song constructed on similar principles but differing in content from all the others. My study was an analysis of hundreds of songs recorded from a North Atlantic and a North Pacific population over several decades. It turns out that while all the whales in a population sing roughly the same song at any point in time, the song evolves continuously, progressively and rapidly, involving irreversible alterations in pitch, rhythm, and fine structure. Conveniently for me, once I became aware of this phenomenon, the rate of change in each of these parameters was such that I could easily measure them. Thus we discovered that all the singing males we were able to identify during several Hawaiian field seasons were always keeping up with the current version. The greatest amount and speed of change appeared at the height of the breeding season, when singing is most pervasive and the effort of each singer is most intense. Thus to sing is, for humpback whales, to change, suggesting improvisation and imitation as the sources of this example of cultural evolution, rather than accident or the conveyance of changing information. Using recordings and spectrograms, I will illustrate as much of the above as I can fit into a few minutes, and argue that this consensus among singers could not be achieved without acoustic awareness on the part of many individuals.
My second example is from forest elephants in the Central African Republic, and has to do with elephants’ ability to recognize other elephants both acoustically and visually in the midst of a very large (several hundred) continually shifting assemblage on a forest clearing. I will illustrate this through a selection of video recordings made in the course of a study of elephants’ vocal behavior. Acoustic recognition, even over fairly long distances, underlies the fission / fusion nature of elephant societies, and enables males to find fertile females for breeding. Equally remarkable is the implication of separate responses from more than a hundred individual elephants to a recently dead calf previously unknown or little known to them.

Irene M. Pepperberg

Irene M. Pepperberg

Research Associate, Harvard University, Department of Psychology.

Title: “Perceptual Awareness in the Grey Parrot.”
Abstract: Arguments for human consciousness usually derive from introspective reports; we lack such reports for nonhumans. Not being able to derive data to posit human-like consciousness, I argue that nonhumans have an awareness distinct from full consciousness. I propose that this awareness is required for complex tasks and is a form of higher order cognition, sensu Delacour (1997), who posits consciousness as a “…certain style of cognition, characterized by a particular integration of different processes…” For some nonhumans, this awareness involves the capacity not only to process perceived data, but also to chose, from among various possible sets of rules that have been acquired or taught, the set that appropriately governs the current processing of that data (Pepperberg 1999). Simple associative processes probably require only basic perception. In contrast, complex comparative psychology tasks (e.g., transfer, hierarchical category formation) require integrating perception, centralized monitoring, and behavioral control; for some tasks, however, even this information-processing account cannot explain observed data. I will discuss one of several studies that provide evidence not for nonhuman consciousness equivalent to that of humans, but possibly for some of its elements, that on a Grey parrot’s derivation of a zero-like concept.

Diana Reiss

Diana Reiss

Professor of Psychology, Hunter College, CUNY.

Title: “Mirror Self-Recognition: Reflections of Consciousness in Dolphins and Elephants”
Absract: Mirror self-recognition (MSR), the ability to understand an external representation of self, is one index of self-awareness. Once considered unique to humans, the capacity for MSR is rare in the animal world and been demonstrated only in a few other mammals – the great apes, dolphins and elephants and one avian species, the magpie. Dolphins and elephants, like humans and great apes, are large-brained highly social species that exhibit empathy towards others suggesting a sophisticated social awareness for the plight of others. When exposed to mirrors, both dolphins and elephants show striking similarities to humans and great apes in the stages of behavior they exhibit when learning the contingencies of mirror-use and when using a mirror as a tool to view themselves. The capacity of MSR in dolphins and elephants represents a striking case of cognitive convergence in species with profound differences in neuroanatomical characteristics and evolutionary history.

Alexandra Rosati


Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Psychology, Yale University.

Title: “Evolving Volition: Evidence from Ape Decision-Making”
Abstract: Why do we choose to pursue one course of action rather than another? This talk will address the origins of volitional behavior by examining the psychological basis of decision-making in humans’ two closest relatives, chimpanzee and bonobos. I present evidence that humans and other apes share deep commonalities in their patterns of economic decision-making. Yet chimpanzees and bonobos also can show important differences in their preferences when faced with the same problem. I discuss the implications of these empirical results for understanding intentional action in nonhuman animals.
Bio: Alexandra Rosati is a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University in the Department of Psychology, and will join the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University as an assistant professor in 2015. She received a PhD from the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. Her research aims at illuminating how cognition evolves by examining variation in psychological capacities across species, with a focus on humans and other primates.

Animal Consciousness: Evidence and Implications

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