Researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany have found that crows are capable of conscious thought. They say that their findings open up new avenues for perceiving the evolution of consciousness and awareness.
By consciousness, the researchers refer to primary consciousness- awareness of the self and the surrounding world, knowing what you know, and to consider it knowledge. Previously, this aspect of the brain was associated with the cerebral cortex, a complex, layered region found in primate and human brains.
Research on birds such as crows and ravens, however, has proven that this area of the brain may not just be exclusive to primates. Although their brains are comparably smooth, they display some of the same cognitive abilities found in mammals, such as certain problem-solving and decision-making abilities. To understand why this may be the case, the researchers conducted an experiment to understand whether birds are capable of subjective experience.
For the experiment, they recruited two carrion crows and trained them to respond to lights flashing on screens. If they saw the lights, they were to move their heads. While most of the lights were easy to identify and report, some were harder as they were brief and faint. In these instances, the crows only reported seeing the signals some of the time- suggesting the possibility of subjective experience.
Over the course of the study, the crows underwent several sessions with around 20,000 signals. Throughout, their brain activity was recorded via implanted electrodes. When the crows responded ‘yes’, neuronal activity was recorded in the interval between seeing the light and giving an answer. Meanwhile, when the answer was ‘no’, no neuronal activity was captured. The researchers said that the connection was robust-enough to predict the crows’ responses purely based on brain activity.
The researchers say that their findings confirm that subjective experiences are not exclusive to the primate brain and that other animals- namely crows- are also capable of primary consciousness. As such, the question now remains: are birds also capable of secondary consciousness? Are they also aware that they are aware?