Friday, June 10, 2016

What it is like to be a Bee? Do Insects Have Consciousness?

There is an interesting bit of science happening about the consciousness of invertebrates such as insects. It centers around using computer modeling in conjunction with known anatomy to see how the brain and nervous system of insects developed and whether they have consciousness or not.  For a long time science has tended to see insects as akin to programmed robots, an idea some of you may find kind of sad an lacking for creatures that appear to be so complicated.  Simpler than us, the study finds, yes, but also that these ancient life forms also may suggest how consciousness evolved over vast time scales.

Using the insect's analogue to the human's midbrain, biologist Andrew Barron and philosophy professor Colin Klein have found that the activity being displayed there suggests that an individual insect has some sort of sense of itself within it's environment: where it is, what's around it, and how it needs to respond.

With this, Barron and Klein propose that the basis of consciousness may very well be traced back to the Cambrian period, a 56 million-year period that started 541 million years ago, when the first invertebrates first developed.(1)

Insect awareness may be debated by materialistic science, but as our ability to develop new methods for probing consciousness, we may be able to begin to bump up against still larger implications for our understanding of what consciousness is.  We can hope.  The source goes on to explain that,

"While insect brains are minute – the largest are far smaller than a grain of rice – new research has shown that they perform the same ancient functions as the human midbrain.
The insect central complex ties together memory, homeostatic needs and perception in the same integrated way. This integration has the same function as well: to enable effective action selection.

In the bee, this detailed representation of the animal in space is what allows it to perform remarkable feats of navigation. Thus, while insect brains and human brains could not look more different, they have structures that do the same thing, for the same reason and so support the same kind of first-person perspective.

That is strong reason to think that insects and other invertebrates are conscious. Their experience of the world is not as rich or as detailed as our experience – our big neocortex adds something to life! But it still feels like something to be a bee.

If this argument is correct, studying insects is a powerful way to study basic forms of consciousness. The honeybee brain has less than a million neurons, which is roughly five orders of magnitude fewer than a human. That is a lot easier to study." (2)

Sources - (1)

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