Do animals possess the same level of consciousness as humans? Unknown Country explores the possibility that "dumb animals" may be as sentient – or even more so – than humans. Because we are unable to communicate directly with animal species, the common human perception is that animal intelligence is somehow inferior to our own. Yet there are few ‘animal-lovers’ who cannot relate a tale telling of a connection with an animal, living or dead, which has positively impacted upon their lives in some way, or maybe even saved it.
In her diary entry "The Miracle of God as Dog", Anne Strieber describes how the unusual and frenzied barking of neighborhood dogs alerted Whitley to the fact that she was having a seizure, and ultimately saved her life. This is just one instance of an unexplainable sense of ‘knowing’ that animals have; there are many, many stories describing similar events. Dogs have been known to start howling before significant events such as earthquakes, and in one such incident in Haicheng, China, in 1975, Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of the city just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake based on the strange behavior of animal inhabitants, and it was estimated that up to 150,000 lives were saved as a result.
So animals do seem to possess a unique ‘sixth sense’, but are they also our intellectual equals? Scientists have conducted multiple tests over the years in an attempt to determine whether animals do possess a level of intellect far beyond our expectations, and some astonishing results have been achieved. A recent report revealed that chickens have better numeracy skills and spatial awareness than the average young child.
"The domesticated chicken is something of a phenomenon," Christine Nicol, professor of Animal Welfare at Bristol University, told the Times. "Studies over the past 20 years have revealed their finely honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead." Other similar studies have discovered that poultry have the ability to apply logic and plan for the likelihood of future events.
The commonly-held belief that a goldfish has only a three second memory span was dispelled in a study which illustrated that man’s favourite finned companion could be taught to press a lever to obtain food, a cognitive skill which they were then able to display months later.
Phil Gee, a psychologist from Plymouth University, initially trained fish to press a small lever in their feeding bowls to collect food. Once they had mastered this skill, Gee’s research team restricted the availability of the food until it was dispensed for just one hour in the day.
"The fish worked out that if they hit the lever around that time, they would get food," Mr Gee said. "Their activity around the lever increased enormously just before the set hour when their food was dispensed. But then if no food came out, they stopped pressing the lever when the hour was up. It shows that they are probably able to adapt to changes in their circumstances, like any other small animals and birds. It tells us that they are able to learn."
These abilities could be dismissed by some as ‘circus tricks’, or merely an extension of the animal’s natural survival skills, but illustrations of animal emotions or social connectivity are not so easily dismissed. In fact, many studies have confirmed that animal species do have the capacity for deep emotions, that they have a well-defined moral code and sense of justice, and are capable of developing complex social networks. A recent study from the University of California, Davis, discovered that Scrub Jay birds held elaborate death rituals for their dead:
“On encountering a dead jay, prostrate on the ground, jays flew into a tree and began a series of loud, screeching calls that attracted other jays. The summoned birds perched on trees and fences around the body and joined in the calling. These gatherings could last from a few seconds to as long as 30 minutes,” said the researchers.
Scientists have even found evidence that animals have the ability to discriminate between easy and difficult activities, and in some cases opted for easier options which indicated that they were exercising an element of ‘self-doubt’ in certain situations. Iin a recent study in which Macaque monkeys were used as subjects, showed that they possess a remarkable awareness of the limits of their mental abilities. They were taught to play a basic computer game where correct answers were rewarded with edible treats. The monkeys were also given the option to skip questions if they chose, and researchers observed that when a particular test was perceived to be too difficult, the macaques chose to pass and move on to easier questions which guaranteed them more treats.
Professor John David Smith, one of a team of three scientists that conducted the study, commented: “Monkeys apparently appreciate when they are likely to make an error. They seem to know when they don’t know.” Interestingly, playing the same game, New World monkeys, that is, those native to the Americas, did not choose to pass."
Animals also appear to possess creative talents: news of elephants in Thailand who are accomplished artists has been widely circulated around the globe. At the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand, Asian elephants spend their days creating still life masterpieces using oils on canvas, and the finished artwork is indistinguishable from a picture painted by a human artist. The talents of the center’s pachyderm ‘Picassos’ do not end there: they also have an ‘elephant orchestra’ of 14 elephants who have released their own music CD!
Despite huge media coverage and multiple pieces of video evidence showing the elephants at work, the idea of them having the intelligence to paint a picture seems to provoke such fear in us humans that the internet is also full of articles attempting to prove that this phenomena is, in some way, a hoax. Perhaps the resistance to embrace the concept is borne of guilt, as if humans are forced to accept the fact that animals might be our equals, this would challenge all previously-held beliefs about animal consciousness, and would force us to reconsider the sometimes appalling way that animals are treated by humans. It is perhaps more convenient for us as a species to continue to convince ourselves that animals are less sentient creatures, as this then justifies a lack of consideration for their needs and feelings. To accept this new viewpoint, that animals are worthy of our respect, would pose a serious moral dilemma as the exploitation of animals is now so ingrained into our cultures that to recognise them as conscious beings would require a overhaul of our whole infrastructure.
Yet, in order to facilitate the spiritual evolution of our own species, it seems almost imperative that we explore this possibility; indeed we can no longer deny it. Some religions, such as traditional Hindu teachings, have always embraced the concept of spirituality in animals, whilst accepting that they do not experience existence as humans do, so their spirituality cannot be quantified, measured and explored in the same way.
Swamini Svatmavidyananda, resident acharya at Arsha Vijnana Gurukulum in Georgia, explains:
“In the vision of the Vedas there is only one presence, one source of consciousness, known as Brahman, which is limitless and all pervasive, and which is the truth of one’s self. All that is here, known and unknown, is pervaded by this consciousness. Without undergoing any change, this self-evident consciousness manifests as the very presence in all things sentient and insentient. The air we breathe, the light of the sun, oceans, rivers, mountains and forests, are all Ishvara, God. Animals are also manifestations of Brahman, as are humans."
“Seen from this view, there is no difference between the two. However, from the standpoint of the forms themselves, there is a difference in the extent of self-awareness, in terms of free will. Although animals are self-aware, and some even appear to have a moral compass, this awareness is rudimentary compared to that of human beings.”
Animal awareness may be considered to be ‘rudimentary’ in comparison to our own, but is this merely because we ourselves lack the awareness or comprehension necessary to interpret it?
Even with the scientific breakthroughs which have proved beyond doubt that animals possess similar reasoning processes to humans, and have made us re-evaluate our opinions of animal aptitude, one wonders if it is appropriate to attempt to measure animal intelligence – and conscious awareness – in the same way as our own. As Albert Einstein pointed out: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
In order to fully comprehend the true nature of animal cognizance, do we need to first expand our own consciousness in order to encompass different forms of ‘intelligence’ and accept that, though these are unlike our own, they may be just as relevant?
A conference of neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge, UK on July 7th, 2012, attempted to explore the limits of our awareness, and produced “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,” which stated that animals and humans do have similar consciousness and awareness. Joseph Dial, rancher and former executive director of the Mind Science Foundation, said at the conference that "the way we in which we have understood animal consciousness is very primitive and very backward."
The conference mission statement was to " provide a purely data-driven perspective on the neural correlates of consciousness" focusing in particular on comparisons between animal and human consciousness. The conference claimed that the full species spectrum would be explored: "from flies to rodents, humans to birds, elephants to dolphins… from the viewpoint of three branches of biology: anatomy, physiology, and behavior. Until animals have their own storytellers, humans will always have the most glorious part of the story, and with this proverbial concept in mind, the symposium will address the notion that humans do not alone possess the neurological faculties that constitute consciousness as it is presently understood. "
The vision of these enlightened academics is shared by Dawn Baumann Brunke, the author of five books about deepening our connection with animals, nature, self and spirit, who has had extensive experience communicating with all animal species on a spiritual level.
"I think one of the obstacles for us (humans) is that we tend to judge other species through our own standards — as if logical thinking is the pinnacle of conscious awareness," Ms. Brunke told Unknown Country. " We also tend to think that other species are ‘less than’ because they do not compare in some areas to human achievements. It’s a small-minded, and very unfortunate, way of seeing things. "
Just because animals did not invent the wheel – though our four-legged friends were vital in its implementation – does not mean that they have contributed less to the progression of life on this planet. In fact, one could argue that the development of human civilisation has ultimately had a negative impact on our earth, whereas, in general, animal species live in harmony with nature, evolving and adapting to the inevitable changes in environment. Though inevitably some species will gain the ascendancy at different periods in time, no other species other than our own has dominated and controlled the planet and exploited other life forms, in quite such a drastic way as humankind.
So the question that we should be asking is "Who are the more ‘spiritual’ beings – animals or humans?" Does the fact that we can contrive and structure complex religions denote that we are more spiritually advanced, or has this actually limited our ability to spiritually evolve and understand the unique spiritual insights that animals and all other living things can provide for us?
Ms. Brunke suggests that every species brings its own contribution to our physical existence, and that these cannot all be measured against a man-made yardstick:
"My focus is all about acknowledging the many splendid gifts we all bring to the planet — as individuals, as members of a species, as sentient beings (and I include clouds and mountains and plants and all animals in that last category). I think the more we can celebrate and learn from diversity, the better off as a planet we will be," she said. In her book, Animal Voices, Animal Guides, Brunke describes surprisingly deep and profound insights which were given to her when connecting with a variety of different creatures.
A short quote from her book, Animal Voices, Animal Guides, sums up her vision:
"I feel the call of our time is to awaken and express the gifts we came here to share. These are the things that ignite our enthusiasm, inspire our thoughts, encourage our dreams, and lead us to embrace the wonders of this little planet. Attuning ourselves to the deeper awareness that flows through all things, we begin to see all that is possible. We begin to accept the advice and wisdom and support that is so freely offered to us from the animals and from the natural world. And so we begin to live with a sense of joy."
To learn more about Dawn’s work with animals, see her website at www.animalvoices.net