You probably have no doubt that your dog or cat is a sentient animal. They are clearly aware of things that are happening and have thoughts, desires and intentions. For example, they are happy when you come home or when you feed them. However, it’s just as impossible to imagine yourself in another person’s mind—knowing what it’s like to be a dog or a cat—in another person’s mind. This is because privacy is the most important and genuine feature of consciousness. My consciousness is mine and mine alone; yours is yours and yours alone.
We try to read minds indirectly, by watching how others behave and listening carefully to what they say. We sense that they are beings who are just as conscious as we are. But animals don’t talk. And since we cannot penetrate their minds, it is not enough for us to look at their behavior and know whether they possess self-consciousness in addition to consciousness. That is, we don’t know if they’re just aware of the things that happen, or if they’re also… realize that they realize.
Self-awareness – or realizing that we are able to think and are able to distinguish our beliefs from the beliefs of others – is the highest cognitive ability of the human mind… but we still don’t know how the brain makes this possible to make. Everything indicates that it must be a process of meta-representation: that which is represented in the neurons in one part of the brain, in turn, has a double representation in another part of it. A double representation of this type seems to exist in the insula – a fold in the temporal cortex – which allows us to know things such as, when something hurts, we are the ones who are in pain.
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 in a mirror. For example, when a cat first sees its reflection, it behaves in such a way that it believes that what it sees is another cat. Through repeated introductions, cats learn that they are themselves in the mirror, but the ability for instant self-recognition does not seem to be innate in the feline species. However, this ability appears to exist in at least three species of more advanced mammals: bonobo chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins. Although even with these three species it is still questionable whether they honestly recognize themselves in a mirror, or whether their behavior is nothing more than a kind of reflex.
In the case of chimpanzees, one method of knowing if they recognize themselves in a mirror is by painting a color signal on their faces. For example, with lipstick: when the animal first looks in the mirror, touches its fingers to its mouth, this is convincing evidence that the chimpanzee believes it is seeing itself.
The mirror test is not free 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 clear up doubt is to completely redefine the concept of self-awareness so that it can include simpler cognitive skills. For example, self-awareness may begin with abilities such as knowing that “this body is mine,” “I am different from others,” “this area is mine,” etc., until gradually reaching the ability that enables one to feel that they are the subject of those thoughts and ascribe those same faculties to others.
Functional neuroimaging, on the other hand, could also help if we could 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 has yet 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 wonderful and happy futures… but those same reflections can also amplify our negative feelings when we think about the consequences of certain situations, or when we feeling guilt or shame. Those who are convinced that animals lack self-awareness and therefore do not think about their own thoughts must also believe that this frees them from such suffering. Yet in a world where they are often mistreated, this possibility offers little solace.