Humans are not the only animals with a sense of self, new study claims

It's a debate that has been going on for millennia

Christopher Hooton
Wednesday 17 June 2015 08:55

Self-awareness is something often described as unique to mankind, but a team of researchers at the University of Warwick believe it is felt by many more animals.

In a study published in Current Zoology entitled 'From foraging to autonoetic consciousness: The primal self as a consequence of embodied prospective foraging', they argue through their findings that any animal which can simulate environments and conceive the future must have some form of self-awareness.

"The study's key insight is that those animals capable of simulating their future actions must be able to distinguish between their imagined actions and those that are actually experienced," said study co-author Professor Thomas Hills.

Inspired by work involving sending rats through mazes conducted in the 1950s, Hills and his team looked at the neuroscience behind a rat's deliberation of 'choice points'.

He added: "The study answers a very old question: do animals have a sense of self? Our first aim was to understand the recent neural evidence that animals can project themselves into the future. What we wound up understanding is that, in order to do so, they must have a primal sense of self."

"As such, humans must not be the only animal capable of self-awareness. Indeed, the answer we are led to is that anything, even robots, that can adaptively imagine themselves doing what they have not yet done, must be able to separate the knower from the known."

The study makes some huge assertions, claiming to have answered one of metaphysics' biggest questions, but there will surely still be many sceptics.

Exactly what animals' experience of life is remains elusive, and these simple choices surely do not amount to the same profound level of self-awareness that we as humans experience (not that we've been able to adequately define even that ourselves).


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