How do we define consciousness, and what would it mean for a bee to be conscious? Recent research is building on our understanding of invertebrate consciousness, and on the nature of consciousness in general. It is established that bees can take in information from the environment and work with that information. The question is whether they can sense their environment from a personal perspective. Most of us would agree that a tree does not have such a consciousness, but a cat does. A cat can not only sense the world around it in an automatic, impersonal manner but has reactions, desires, and preferences based on its environment, as humans do. In this way we share at least a basic level of consciousness, although humans may well be the only animals that are aware of being aware.
Consciousness is difficult to diagnose, however, since it relies on interpreting outward manifestations of a presumed inner state. We deduce that a cat is angry because it reacts rather like we do when we’re angry. In fact, we cannot even be totally certain of the consciousness of another human being—we just assume it based on the fact that we can relate to their behaviour. But this is very difficult to do with a creature like a bee; we cannot read a bee’s facial expressions and body language as being similar to our own.
Hence, a new form of research is attempting to analyse the neural basis of consciousness, which can then be compared across species. Neuroscientist Björn Merker argues that the capacity for consciousness in humans depends on the evolutionarily old core of the brain known as the midbrain. Self-awareness, on the other hand, would depend on the younger neocortex which surrounds the midbrain. The midbrain is thought to be important to awareness because it holds together knowledge, desire, and perception in one decision-making centre; this first-person perspective was vital for the survival and evolution of animals.
Although insect brains are tiny, research has shown that they perform the same functions as the human midbrain by tying together memory, perception, and needs. Moreover, this integrated system has the same function as the midbrain, namely to facilitate decision-making. Hence, there is good reason to believe that insects are ‘conscious’ as we would define it. You might think twice about swatting that bothersome insect from now on.
Applicants for Biology or Natural Sciences may wish to learn more about consciousness from an evolutionary perspective, with reference to the bee as an example of contemporary research. Applicants for Philosophy might want to think about consciousness more broadly; can we ever be truly sure that those around us are conscious as we are, rather than just a computer simulation? Could we ever invent a machine that was conscious? Students interested in ethics could consider the implications of research into consciousness on issues such as animal rights.