Most of us think of insects as little automatons, living creatures driven by instinct and outside stimulus to slurp up nectar or buzz around our ears. But in a new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest that insects have the capacity “for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience.”
The authors of the paper, philosopher Colin Klein and cognitive scientist Andrew Barron of Australia’s Macquarie University, aren't arguing that insects have deep thoughts and desires, like “I want to be the fastest wasp in my nest” or “Yum, this pear nectar is good!” But they do suggest that invertebrates could be motivated by subjective experience, which is the very beginning of consciousness.
“When you and I are hungry, we don't just move towards food; our hunger also has a particular feeling associated with it,” Klein tells Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News. “An organism has subjective experience if its mental states feel like something when they happen.”
“We want to know something more: whether insects can feel and sense the environment from a first-person perspective,” Klein and Barron write at The Conversation. “In philosophical jargon, this is sometimes called 'phenomenal consciousness.'”
Insects also have a rudimentary sense of ego, though very different from Narcissus or Kanye. Instead, it’s the ability to act on certain environmental cues and ignore others. “They don’t pay attention to all sensory input equally,” Barron tells Viegas. “The insect selectively pays attention to what is most relevant to it at the moment, hence (it is) egocentric.”
The idea is not just philosophical musing. The duo points to research in an area called the midbrain to back up their idea. “In humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone and/or spinal column) there is good evidence that the midbrain is responsible for the basic capacity for subjective experience,” Klein tells Viegas. “The cortex determines much about what we are aware of, but the midbrain is what makes us capable of being aware in the first place. It does so, very crudely, by forming a single integrated picture of the world from a single point of view.”
Recent research mapping insect brains shows that their central nervous system probably performs the same function that the midbrain does in larger animals. “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,” Klein and Barron write. “But it still feels like something to be a bee.”
The mere mention of insect consciousness, however minimal, is sure to be controversial. But it’s not unreasonable. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher at the City University of New York tells The New York Times that the idea is plausible. At the same time, he says there are many types of awareness insects may have, but many they probably do not, like the ability to feel pain. “Insects may have subjective experience,” he says, “but not of a kind that has a lot of ethical consequences.”
The researchers point out that if tiny insect brains do provide the rudiments of consciousness, studying them could be important for the development of artificial intelligence and things like drones that can make rudimentary decisions about what path to fly.