The Ravens Perspective
The Webster Dictionary definition of consciousness is: “The quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself. The state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state, or fact.” The idea of being aware, and the idea of knowing arise here. These seem to be the keys to consciousness in this definition. One is to be conscious of something within the self. This could be hunger, an aesthetic preference, or that you would like to take a hike tomorrow. The second is this idea of awareness of one's surroundings, and of oneself. This definition is a bit broader. Almost like the step before the first definition. The one detailing awareness tells that consciousness is as simple as understanding where you are in a space and your relation to things outside yourself. Then the other definition builds on that and adds the idea of being aware of your awareness to the surrounding area. Knowing within yourself, that you know you are aware. This is what I would label as human consciousness. The self analytical consciousness. As it is unclear whether this self reflexivity exists in animals, I will refrain from defining consciousness in animals as consciousness. I will instead refer to it as life experience. This is something that can be quantified in animals. Life experience is the second part of the Webster definition, with a little more added on. Life experience is this: the experience had by an organism, built by an awareness of its surroundings, and an awareness of self in relation to these surroundings.
We will use ravens as an example in this case, as they are formally very different from humans. However, they have some unique similarities as well. The most prominent of these similarities is the usage of language. Ravens have many different calls, or words to communicate a host of ideas to one another. One study even found that ravens use basic hand gestures to communicate as well. A doubter of animal life experience will be skeptical of this. Thinking it's probably just random the noises ravens make, and that their calls could not possibly convey meaning, something reserved for only human speech. I am challenging this viewpoint here by showing how ravens can behave in a way that can only be explained by the birds' deep and clear understanding of themselves, their desires, and their relationships to space, objects, and people. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that their life experiences are the same as ours. This needs to be made clear. This debate I am plunging into here is essentially this: are animals conscious? This debate has been going on for years. The reason it's been going on so long is because it cannot yet be solved. There is not a scientific process in which we can enter the mind, or the consciousness, or life experience, of another creature. We can observe a creature while it has its life experience. We can experience our own and discuss it. We can look into a creature's sensory equipment and based on ours, attempt to figure out what it might be like in that creature's life experience, but we cannot see and feel what that creature does.
Interestingly, we can communicate with some non-human creatures, and can reach a common understanding. In this way, we can create a picture in our life experience of another creature. We can give it a name, a face, and associate some mannerisms to it. It is registered for us as another living being. Then, the creature we associate with can do the same back. It can see our face, it can recognize us. It may even be able to have an opinion of us. It has these options in its life experience. Looking at life experience through the lens of animal-human communication will be our focus. How deep can we peer into an animal's life experience through what the animal chooses to show us? What is it trying to communicate to us? If we can translate that, we might be able to give proof to a baseline life experience in all animals.
Please watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfsnHVaScjg. Thank you. Now I want you to remember what we were just discussing. Can you think of any clues that might lead us into the life experience of this raven? I can, and I will relay them here below. First, we can see that the raven has an attachment to its owner. It is not aggressive to her in any way, and nonchalantly sits on her arm. It knows her and she knows it. There is their initial connection, and a first proof that the raven knows the lady as part of its life experience. Second, is their relationship of speech. This gives us the best lens into the raven's life experience. We see the raven react to the verbal words of its owner. It reacts and says hello, hi, and coughs, as a way to get a treat. So let's break this down. In the raven's life experience it is sitting on her arm, it can feel the arm in its claws. It sees her as attached to the arm, and sees her mouth move, and associates the sounds she makes with her mouth as her saying them. Next, it knows there are treats in her hand. Notice that after she removes her hand so the raven cannot eat any more treats it tilts its head and follows her hand with its head. It bends down and looks at her hand, as it knows the treats are in there. Next step is the interaction. The raven has motivation because it wants the treats. The lady then can get something out of the raven in exchange for the treats. In this video she is asking the raven to speak. The raven has learned this and executes it well. It hears hello, hi, and a cough, and responds by mimicking the sounds. It knows that if it does this it will receive a treat. So what does this look like in the raven's life experience?
As we have covered, the raven is aware of the whole situation, treats, her, and that it must say certain things to get the treats. Notice that it does not speak until she prompts it, it isn’t just randomly babbling. So for the raven's life experience we see quite a complex one. One that actually has an understanding of self. It understands that to get these treats it personally must speak. It knows that it must speak the right thing when prompted. This requires an understanding of self. It understands itself as a raven, and that it itself is hungry for treats. It understands that to get these treats it must make this noise when prompted. So then the raven's life experience consists of a pretty layered understanding of the situation, its desires, and of its human companion. Also in the second part of the video where the raven stops cooperating gives us an insight into its personality, and the depth of its life experience.
Now let's look at the raven again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFXU7o0fYII. In this video of the same raven we see the same vocalizations. We see and hear it give multiple hellos, then some hi’s. However, in this interaction, the raven was not rewarded for any of its vocalizations like before. It doesn’t have the treat imperative as before. Yet the raven continues the call and response with its owner. Giving her a few hellos and then some hi’s. Without the treats for motivation why would the raven make these sounds? It appears to me, to be due to the bond felt between raven and human. It seems that she has bonded with the raven enough that it will participate in this call and response solely out of respect for its human friend. In the raven's life experience it clearly understands the wants of the lady. She continuously says hello until he replies. So for him, to either have her stop or just to please her, he must speak. He may even be poking fun at the lady by aggressively shouting “HI” at her in a similar way she does to him. Whatever the reasons for the raven participating in this interaction, it's that fact that it has these reasons that is most important. It has the mental capacity to interact with the woman without promise of a reward, which suggests that the raven has a “mind of its own.” It lives in the same world as we do, with many of the same needs. It must breathe, eat, sleep, etc.. It has many of the same sensory organs, eyes, ears, a nose, and mouth.
Do all these similarities count for naught? Are these creatures sharing this fast paced dangerous world with us really living in darkness? Or are we overestimating our expansive human consciousness? By interacting with and observing animals for the last 24 years I have come to the conclusion that we are much more similar than is popularly believed. That animal and human life experience is very similar at the core, the feelings of living, wanting, needing, are shared between almost all life. As without these desires we would have no reason to eat, sleep or reproduce, and life would cease to exist. For each species its sensory abilities, and requirements of surviving add different lenses to its world. A wild raven has no practical use for knowledge of saying hello, and hi, and that's why you never hear a wild raven fly over with a “Hello.” However, this raven is proof that when saying hello is practical, a means to acquire food, it can be added to its vocabulary. This argument is focused on ravens, and they are known as one of the smartest, smartest as defined by human standards, animals. However, this idea and concept spans across all animal life. From an ant to you and I everything has a perspective, everything with eyes can only and must look through those eyes. The world must be navigated, and without some form of life experience within this would be impossible. There would be nothing within to register the wants, needs, and dangers of the world, nothing to decide how to react and how to survive. If you want to see this for yourself, I challenge you to pay close attention to the next animal you see, be it your dog or a butterfly, and try to imagine what it's perspective might be.
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.
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