You probably have no doubt that your dog or cat is a conscious animal. They are clearly aware of things that happen and have thoughts, desires and intentions. They are happy, for example, when you come home or when you give them food. However, imagining ourselves inside their minds – knowing what it’s like to be a dog or a cat – is as impossible as imagining ourselves in the mind of any other person. This is because the main and most genuine characteristic of consciousness is privacy. My consciousness is mine and only mine; yours is yours and only yours.
We try to mind-read in an indirect way, by looking at how others behave and listening closely to what they say. We intuit that they are beings just as conscious as ourselves. But animals do not speak. And, since we cannot penetrate their minds, it’s not enough for us to look at their behavior and know if – in addition to consciousness – they possess self-awareness. That is, we don’t know if they are only aware of things that happen, or if they also realize that they realize.
Self-awareness – or realizing that we are capable of thought and able to distinguish our beliefs from the beliefs of others – is the highest cognitive capacity of the human mind… but we still don’t know how the brain makes this possible. Everything indicates that it must be a meta-representation process: that what is represented in the neurons in one part of the brain has, in turn, a double representation in some other part of it. A double representation of this type seems to exist in the insula – a fold in the temporal cortex – that allows us to know things such as, when something hurts, we are the ones who are hurting.
Self-awareness elevates the capabilities of the human mind to an exponential level
Some animal behavior researchers have suggested that one way to tell if a species is self-aware is to see if animals recognize themselves when they look into a mirror. A cat, for example, when it first sees its reflection, behaves in such a way as to indicate that it believes that what it is seeing is another cat. With repeated introductions, cats come to know that it is themselves in the mirror, but the capacity of immediate self-recognition does not seem to be innate in the feline species. This capacity, however, does seem to exist in at least three species of more evolved mammals: bonobo chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins. Although, even in these three species, it is still in doubt as to whether they sincerely recognize themselves in a mirror, or if their behavior is nothing more than a kind of reflex.
In the case of chimpanzees, a method of knowing if they recognize themselves in a mirror is to paint a color signal on their face. For example, with lipstick: if, when looking in the mirror for the first time, the animal touches its fingers to its mouth, this is convincing evidence that the chimpanzee believes that it is seeing itself.
The mirror test is not exempt from criticism, because it implies the unproven hypothesis that self-recognition is a test of self-awareness. There are those who believe that non-recognition in a mirror does not necessarily indicate that an animal is not self-aware.
Perhaps the best way to remove doubt is to redefine the concept of self-awareness altogether, allowing it to include simpler cognitive abilities. Self-awareness, for example, could begin with faculties such as knowing that “this body is mine,” “I am different from others,” “this territory is mine,” etc., until progressively reaching the capacity that allows one to feel that they are the subject of those thoughts and attribute those same faculties to others.
Functional neuroimaging, on the other hand, could also help if we were to see the parts of the brain that are activated when a person thinks about their own thoughts. This could then be compared to animal brains. Unfortunately, this remains to be tested.
Self-awareness elevates the capabilities of the human mind to an exponential level. That is why when we reflect on our own knowledge and our own thoughts, we can imagine splendid and happy futures… but those same reflections can also enhance our negative feelings when we reflect on the consequences of certain situations, or when we have feelings of guilt or shame. Those who are convinced that animals do not have self-awareness and, therefore, do not think about their own thoughts, must also believe that this frees them from such suffering. Still, in a world where they are often mistreated, this possibility offers little solace.