Inside knowledge: What’s Really Going On in the Minds of Animals

The title of this post is identical to the title of a Feature article by Michael Brooks in the Features section of in the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.   The article begins, “Bright animals from chimps to crows know what they know and what others are thinking.  But when it comes to abstract knowledge, the picture is more mixed.”  Some qualifications need to be placed on “what others are thinking.”  There are definite limits as we humans often have difficulty trying to know what our fellow humans are thinking.

The article also fails to note “The Cambridge Declaration of Scientists.”  It begins as follows:
“On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

and concludes:
“The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

The full statement can be found at

Fortunately, the scientists here are neuroscientists, which gives the statement more gravitas than had it been made by psychologists.  But psychologists are involved in designing experiments to assess how much and what kinds of abstract knowledge can be achieved by different species.  And there is a long row of research ahead of them.  HM was much encouraged by this declaration as he has long thought that dogs were man’s best friend, rather than men being man’s best friend, because dogs had the neurological substrates for love and loyalty, but were lacking in neocortex that allowed for rationalization and deviousness.

There is a tendency to evaluate what animals know with respect to what humans know.  Sometimes this research seems to reflect an inferiority complex in showing what these are things we can do that nonhuman species cannot. They also need to be evaluated with respect to the capabilities of the species and the environments in which they operate.

We need to consider species with respect to their sensory caoacities. Consider are best friend, dogs, for example.  The vision of most dogs is not that good, but their hearing is outstanding, and their sense of smell is extraordinary.  When we think of someone, we tend to see them in our mind’s eye.  However, when a dog thinks of a person it is likely in terms of how that person smells.

Recent research has indicated that non-human species are more human than has traditionally been thought.  This research is to be applauded.  We look forward to what we’ll learn from future research, but it should go beyond what they can do compared to what we can do.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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