Fur Will Fly at First Scientific Conference on Animal Consciousness

Birds, dolphins, elephants, mice, pre-historic human beings... Do any creatures other than modern-day people possess what we call consciousness? Brain researchers from around the world are set to explore that question this summer.
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Does your dog have a sense of self? Does your cat live her life with Zenlike awareness or is she just a pleasantly-packaged pet with mechanical eyes set in an unanimated, furry face?

Birds, dolphins, elephants, mice, pre-historic human beings... Do any creatures other than modern-day people possess what we call consciousness?

The fur might fly this summer at the first scientific conference to put that question on the stand. Brain researchers from around the world are set to gather July 7 at the University of Cambridge for what is being billed as the First Annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference (named after Sir Francis Crick, who, after co-discovering the structure of DNA, set his mind to unraveling the mysteries of consciousness). The meeting could mark the turning point in our assessment of how much we have in common with Fido, Flipper and even houseflies.

Or not. When the question is, "Do animals have emotional and intellectual lives?", the scientific community can fight like cats and dogs.

"Over the years, people have come to agree that animals have a level of perceptual consciousness," says Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller Alex and Me (HarperCollins 2009). In her book, Pepperberg demonstrated that parrots are capable of intelligent communication. "Animals process information and make decisions. The extent to which they ruminate at the next level - being aware of being aware - is difficult to nail down. It's difficult to ask."

Pepperberg points to mirror studies in which elephants and dolphins seem to recognize themselves, a rarity in the animal world as anyone with a dog and a mirror can tell you. Such self-recognition has been linked to empathy and deception. "Some experts say mirror tests tell us something," she says. But others, she adds, point out that children who pass similar mirror tests are confused when their mothers enter the room during the test. "They run behind the mirror and look for her."

Pepperberg is to parrots what Jane Gooodall is to chimps; her work is helping us understand the animal mind. Many of us gained entry to the debate on animal consciousness through the delightfully written, heartfelt Alex and Me. Pepperberg also is author of and the more scholarly Alex Studies and her research will be presented at the conference.

For 30 years, from June 1977 to September 2007, Pepperberg studied an African grey parrot named Alex. By the time Alex died, the duo had shattered our previous conception of what constituted a "bird brain." Birds, Pepperberg claimed, were capable of intelligent communication.

But her findings met strong resistance.

Professionally and personally, Pepperberg ran an obstacle course to reach the point at which her research was taken seriously. Although today she is an adjunct associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University and a research associate in psychology at Harvard University, the scientific community marginalized her and her work for years. Her initial research, probing whether a parrot can use English labels to refer to objects, was rejected by the leading scientific journals Nature and Science. Meanwhile, the road to research funding was paved with rejection letters. "I was not only using an unconventional subject, I was using unconventional training techniques and unconventional testing techniques," she said. (In a 2011 interview with Nova, she told interviewer Neil deGrasse Tyson, "The first grant proposal came back asking what I was smoking.")

A lack of steady and enthusiastic support was nothing new to Pepperberg, who says she grew up with a cold and distant mother who blamed her daughter's birth for her own failed career as a bookkeeper. "In those days, when you got pregnant, you got fired," she says.

Like Marie Curie, Pepperberg persevered through professional and personal hindrances. Despite cramped lab space and little funding, her research continued on borrowed time at a handful of supportive universities, including Purdue, Northwestern and University of Arizona.

Alex and Me recounts her many roadblocks and eventual breakthroughs. With a scientist's restraint she writes of the day that Alex, who could count to six, was shown a tray of objects and asked, "How many green wool?" The answer was two. But Alex repeatedly squawked "One" or "Four." Pepperberg, suspecting Alex was messing with her, gave him a time out in his room. As she closed his door, the bird protested. "Two...two...two...I'm sorry."

On the night before Alex died in 2007, Pepperberg, who was careful for scientific reasons to call Alex's vocal production "labels" instead of "words," bid him goodnight.

"You be good. I love you."

Those were Alex's last vocalizations, not Pepperberg's.

Like every great story, this one had a denouement. The parrot's premature death (greys' average lifespan is 60 years) prompted an outpouring of grief worldwide. The Economist published a lengthy obituary. The New York Times science section led with the story. CNN, the Associated Press, The Guardian, All Things Considered, Nature News and other media outlets paid him tribute. Thousands of unsolicited emails and letters of shared grief found their way to the indefatigable scientist whose work had been roped off for years like a crime scene. Let the scientists fight all they want, these messages seemed to say. We know why your heart is breaking. You have lost someone you loved and who felt some emotion for you in return.

No doubt the scientists at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference this summer will hotly debate the topic of creature consciousness. The ideas are in their infancy and the answers, says Pepperberg, "await discovery."

It may be that no animals other than modern humans are aware of themselves and feel emotions. But maybe a few of them would laugh to themselves (good naturedly, perhaps) if they knew we were putting the question to the test.

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