In the past decade, the field of animal cognition and behavior has seen remarkable progress, with a series of surprising discoveries that have challenged our understanding of the inner lives of other species.

From crows that can report on their visual perceptions to octopuses demonstrating a preference for pain relief, these findings suggest that a wide range of animals, including many invertebrates, might have richer subjective experiences than previously thought.

A group of prominent experts, including world leaders in the study of human consciousness, have signed the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness. This document aims to crystallize the message emerging from the research of the past decade, encouraging the scientific community to take seriously the possibility that a wide range of animals, from vertebrates to invertebrates, might have subjective experiences.

Some of the most notable evidence includes:

  • Crows can report on their visual perceptions, and the activity of a brain region associated with high-level cognition seems to correlate with their visual experience.
  • Octopuses avoid pain and value pain relief, suggesting that they might experience suffering.
  • Squids can remember specific details of past events, including how they experienced them.
  • Cleaner wrasse fish and garter snakes seem capable of recognizing themselves.
  • Zebra fish show signs of curiosity, and bees appear to exhibit play behaviors.
  • Crayfish and crabs exhibit anxiety-like states, which can be modulated by anti-anxiety medications.

These advances don’t conclusively prove the existence of consciousness in these animals, but they do establish a solid scientific basis for attributing subjective experiences to at least vertebrates and many invertebrates.

The signatories of the New York Declaration urge scientists, universities, and governments to further support research in this exciting and rapidly developing field, and to seriously consider the risks to animal welfare, even when certainty about consciousness remains elusive.

The Declaration states:

Which animals have the capacity for conscious experience? While much uncertainty remains, some points of wide agreement have emerged.
First, there is strong scientific support for attributions of conscious experience to other mammals and to birds. Second, the empirical evidence indicates at least a realistic possibility of conscious experience in all vertebrates (including reptiles, amphibians, and fishes) and many invertebrates (including, at minimum, cephalopod mollusks, decapod crustaceans, and insects). Third, when there is a realistic possibility of conscious experience in an animal, it is irresponsible to ignore that possibility in decisions affecting that animal. We should consider welfare risks and use the evidence to inform our responses to these risks.

They also invite anyone with relevant knowledge (e.g., postgraduate or equivalent training in science, philosophy, or policy) who wishes to sign the declaration to contact the provided email address on the official website.


Sources

The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness | Andrews, K., Birch, J., Sebo, J., and Sims, T. (2024) Background to the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness


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