To bee, or not to bee: do bees ask this question? Perhaps our apian friends don’t approach existentialism quite to that extent, but a new study suggests that insects might have a form of basic consciousness, allowing them to have their own, individual subjective experiences.

Since insects have brain structures that are far simpler than our own — for instance, bees have less than five million neurons, as compared to the 100 billion in the human brain — this makes their neurology far easier to study. 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.

In humans, the midbrain, also known as the mesencephalon, is one of the most primitive structures within the brain. It is associated with auditory and visual processing, motor movement functions, and also with our basic consciousness. One must bear in mind that what is being referred to here as "consciousness" should not be confused with "sentience" — the capacity for self-reflection that humans are capable of, and is associated with the neocortex, the much larger structure that makes up most of the human brain.

In this case, consciousness is referred to as the creation of the sense of self with one’s environment, by perceiving a simulation within one’s brain that is recreated from the external environment, using input from the individual’s senses. Consciousness is the difference between an organism simply being a robot, and actually being able to make both sense out of, and use of, it’s environment.

In an article on the website The Conversation, Barron and Klein say that "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." 

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