Animal Cognition, Communication,
and Explorations of Consciousness
Harvard University presented the first animal consciousness conference in 2014. The last ten years have produced significant scientific research and publications that explore and disrupt long-standing assumptions about the potential for numerous species of animals to experience a rich inner life. For example, there was a time when the defining line between humans and animals was thought to be toolmaking. Now, just about every species studied, from the octopus, to the elephant, the dolphin, the raven, etc., shows the use of cognitively complex toolmaking.
Then there was the question of language acquisition and purposeful communication. Primates such as Koko the gorilla were taught sign language, and she not only has the vocabulary of a three-year-old human child, but has given us profound insight into her rich emotional life.
Science is also uncovering the complexity of whale songs, and many other species who seem to be communicating in meaningful ways with each other.
Several studies (De Waal and others) point to self-awareness, cooperation and empathy, (mice for example have been shown to have pain mirror responses when they see others in pain), and many animals show comforting behaviors to those who are distressed emotionally and suffering physically. Other studies show a sense of time in social animals. De Waal has shown evidence of emotions in animals and pro-social behaviors such as conciliation, reconciliation, reciprocity and a sense of fairness.
Animal “inequity aversion” shows how capuchin monkeys will not work and perform tasks for unequal pay. Other studies show some species will decline a treat unless their friend gets the same reward. (see video to right.)
That science is taking these questions very seriously is evident in the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness in non-human animals (see addendum).
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns at Emory University, has pioneered fMRI’s on awake dogs, to explore their rich emotional lives and responses to specific stimuli. The pursuit of physical and emotional pleasure has been demonstrated by animal behavior research scientist Johnathan Balcombe, who has demonstrated that animals feel pain and stress, and also proposes that evolution favors sensory rewards because they drive living creatures to stay alive and reproduce.
Laboratory mice have been shown by Jaak Panksepp to anticipate being tickled, and laugh when given this attention (although inaudible to the human ear, new audio detection technology reveals these vocalizations).
John W. Pilley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Wolford College, has taught his dog Chaser, a border collie, over 1,000 words, and Chaser can understand significant differences in grammatical structure. Wild dolphins have complex social structures. John M. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that crows and wild ravens will remember a human face, as either “friend or foe” even years later. Even more perplexing is that the ravens can communicate this information to other ravens hundreds of miles away who have never seen the human, but will recognize that human as either friend or foe without ever having had contact with the human. Somehow the ravens have communicated this important information to each other.
Many species have been observed making tools, recognizing their reflection in mirrors, having a sense of time – including memory or the past, awareness of the present and anticipation of the future. Social animals have been shown to have high levels of compassion, even with members of other species (such as the two-year-old chimpanzee, Anjana, who without training nursed orphaned Siberian Tiger cubs, lions, and leopards who were without mothers.)
In addition to animals learning the meaning of elements of human language, studies of the animals’ natural communication methods are blossoming, as demonstrated in the work of Klaus Zuberbuhler at the Department of Psychology at the Max Planck Institute and at the University of Pennsylvania. His field research with Diana monkeys in West Africa has revealed that their own language is rich and complex, and their calls are purposeful.
One specific call indicates to the other members of their group that a leopard is present, versus a slightly different call that indicates an eagle, each predator requiring a different strategy of evasion. It has also been shown that birds, and other primate species correctly interpreted the Diana monkey’s warning calls.
Extensive precise and accurate observation of body language, such as with primates, horses, dogs, and other social animals, has given us a better understanding of the inner workings of their worlds. Professor Rupert Sheldrake (Cambridge/ Harvard), a bold and controversial researcher with over 80 technical papers published in scientific journals, has over 1,500 case studies of human/animal communication that may involve a level of transmission we are only beginning to explore.
An example of the kind of “invisible” (to humans) communication that animals use is seen at The Dolphin Institute at Kewalo Basin, a research center in Hawaii. After extensive training, these dolphins can be given the command “Tandem Create” – which means two dolphins instantly design a new trick, perform it together, in perfect sync with each other. How are they communicating this new information to each other?
A growing number of respected scientists are reporting examples of what appears to be animal “telepathy” or non-local communication, and a tremendous understanding of what their humans are experiencing and planning. Rupert Sheldrake reports that one Veterinarian’s office in England won’t take appointments for cats, because so many of them seem to know when their owners plan to go to the vet, and the cats disappear. This happens even without the owners giving any signs, such as retrieving the cat carrier.
Dutch primatologist and biologist Frans de Waal has explored and reported on both the scope and depth of animal intelligence, with research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, chimpanzees, bonobos and wasps, to name a few species. These studies show us how we have vastly underestimated animal intelligence and challenge us to re-examine how we define it. Ayumu, a young male chimpanzee studied at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan, shows that this chimp is way ahead of humans in complex memory tests. The chimps also show that they can have a sense of time, and will voluntarily arrive on time at the research lab testing site, for a reward of a taste of honey.
And what about squirrels who can recall the locations of hundreds of buried acorns? Or trained pigeons who can detect hairline fractures on x-rays with greater accuracy than teams of doctors? And trained dogs who are detecing cancer with 98% accuracy. It is time to frame a new paradigm for understanding the potential of animals, in order to help us become better humans!
This multi-disciplinary survey course asks students to read, research, and form their own opinions. It introduces many topics briefly, allowing the student to have a wide exposure to various subject matters, so that they may then choose to concentrate and explore areas of specific interest in greater depth.
The course also covers the use of Therapy and Service animals, such as diabetic and seizure alert dogs, cancer detection dogs and Emotional Support Animals.
Emotional Support Animals (ESA), such as for veterans with PTSD, prison dog training programs, dogs helping children learn to read, dogs helping people with autism to navigate the world, and other animals who help humans lead productive and happy lives, will be explored.
The Human-Animal Bond, historically and to the present will be discussed. The arguments around anthropomorphism will be addressed. Ethical issues of animal research, the realities of life in animal shelters, and other concerns for animal welfare will be briefly included.
Students will have assigned readings and online lectures, podcasts, and videos to watch. They will be encouraged to design and implement their own research project. There is not a specific textbook, rather students will pick one or two books from the two sections of the reading list. Students may read these books online, or purchase the hard copies.
Harvard Conference on Animal Consciousness, 2012
Koko signs with a vocabulary of a three-year old human child.
Frans de Waal - Ted Talk
Capuchin Monkeys won't work for unequal pay
Jack Panksepp (1998) Tickling Rats Experiments.
Anjana feeds orphaned tiger cub
Specific danger warning calls are correctly interpreted by different species.
John M. Marzluff, wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that crows and wild ravens will remember a human face, as either “friend or foe” even years later.
Trained dogs detect cancer from breath and saliva samples with 98% accuracy.
Without training, a teacup poodle insitinctively brings calm and joy to nursing home residents.
Independent Research Projects
Follow Your Bliss -- Study What You Love
Online Education – Work at Your Own Pace
You can complete this distance learning program entirely online. You set your own pace of completion.
Students are expected to explore beyond their knowledge base and to maintain the highest standards of inquiry. Rather than confine themselves to existing beliefs, students are encouraged to rigorously and open-mindedly pursue the truth.
Design Your Field of Study
Working with your adviser, you are encouraged to create a program that satisfies your educational objectives. After overview courses, you design your research approach if you are choosing to proceed to a thesis or dissertation in accordance with your academic goals.
Frontiers of Science
Students will explore current research and science as well as propose rigorous contributions to the field of animal studies and human-animal interaction.
Certificate of Completion
For those students who do not need Academic Credit, the option exists for an Animal Consciousness Completion Certification. For those seeking to complete this program as part of their Academic program, we can discuss how this program works as an Independent Study Option.
Volunteer or Intern with
Animal Welfare Organizations
As part of your program requirements you will volunteer or intern with the organization of your choice, gaining valuable field research and contributing to the well-being of animals.