Conscious Rats?

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's first hypothesis - that consciousness (as he carefully defines it) is based on language, and related topics.
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Conscious Rats?

Post by Hannibal »

Rats Capable Of Reflecting On Mental Processes

Science Daily — Let's say a college student enters a classroom to take a test. She probably already has an idea how she will do on the test, before she even takes out a pencil. But do animals possess the same ability to think about what they know or don't know?

A new study by researchers from the University of Georgia, just published in the journal Current Biology, shows that laboratory rats do. It's the first demonstration that any non-primate knows when it doesn't know something, and it could open the way to more in-depth studies about how animals--and humans--think.

"This kind of research may change how we think about cognition and memory in animals," said Jonathon Crystal, an associate professor of psychology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. Crystal's co-author on the paper is Allison Foote, a graduate student in the department of psychology at UGA.

Researchers have believed for some time that people and non-human primates are capable of "metacognition"--reasoning or thinking about one's own thinking. There have been studies on birds about this kind of thinking process, but results thus far have been inconclusive. The new study is the first that shows a non-primate species has metacognition--a proposal that may well be controversial.

The study involved what is called a "duration-discrimination" test--offering rats rewards for classifying a signal as either short or long. As in most such tests, the "right" answer led to a large food reward, while a "wrong" answer led to no reward at all. The twist, however, is that before taking the duration test, the rats were given the chance to decline the test completely. If they made that choice, they got a small reward anyway.

"If rats have knowledge about whether they know or don't know the answer to the test, we would expect them to decline most frequently on difficult tests," said Crystal. "They would also show the lowest accuracy on difficult tests that they can't decline. Our data showed both to be true, suggesting the rats have knowledge of their own cognitive states."

It's easy to find out when humans believe they know or don't know the answer to a task or test. You just ask them. With non-verbal animals, it is necessary to used experimental conditions in which a subject can demonstrate knowledge of a cognitive state through its behavior.

The tests asked the rats to discriminate among a number of responses. Sometimes, the choices were relatively easy, and the rats were able to make a choice that generated a large reward. But often, the choices were quite difficult, and the animals faced a dilemma: Should they continue and take a chance on the test with the risk of no food reward, or should they just bail out and take the small, but guaranteed reward?

One part of the problem, for example, was presenting the rats with a sound and asking them to determine if it was "short" or "long." When the sounds were near the extremes of either end, discriminating was easy. But for sounds with durations in the mid-range, the rats found it extremely hard to know if they were "short" or "long." So what should they do: Guess and possibly be wrong, or simply refuse to take the test and get a small reward?

"Our research showed that the rats know when they don't know the answer to a question," said Crystal.

The results of the just-published study present a dilemma for those who had previously believed that only primates could achieve metacognition. But it also presents a rodent model that should allow researchers to understand better what animals are "cognitively sophisticated" and why.

The research will also open new lines of inquiry about the underlying neural mechanisms of this ability. Reflecting on one's own mental experiences is a defining feature of human existence, and the demonstration of metacognition in rats suggests that this type of cognition may be widespread among animals. Does it mean, for example, that rats are "conscious," and could that also be true of other non-primates?

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. ... 121856.htm

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very interesting

Post by Zoroaster »

Might I humbly suggest this would have gone well in the
"Evidence of Consciousness in Other Animals" thread?

As usual with these discussions, we fall into questions of semantics. Is "metacognition" consciousness? It is a case in which modern humans would certainly use consciousness - we would ask "can I pass the test?" and try to imagine how we would go about it and what would stand in our way. But does the rat try to think it through in the same way or does it just have an unconscious "feeling" of what action will likely bring the greatest reward?

I am interested in the assertion that it has been established that nonhuman primates have metacognition. If this is the case and metacognition is analogous to consciousness then there is a serious challenge to Jaynes' Orgin of consciousness theory, with or without rats.

I have seen video of crows and monkeys seeming to "figure out" how to solve complicated problems in order to obtain rewards. But if Jaynes is right preconscious humans figured out astronomy, metallurgy, mathematics, architecture and medicine without the benefit of reflective consciousness. So the question is could one know how good one is at thinking without even knowing that one IS thinking?

It gets convoluted to be sure, but since we now have chimps that supposedly know sign language, why don't we just ask them?
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Post by Moderator »

It's an interesting article, thanks for posting it.

Part of the problem is the people doing this type of research into animal cognition are not necessarily doing a lot of reading on consciousness, so right off the bat there is a terminology problem, as the previous poster mentioned.

It'd be interesting to read the actual study. I'm inclined to think the rats learned (unconsciously) which stimuli resulted in rewards and which didn't, i.e. over many trials they learned they were better off doing nothing in certain tasks, in this case when it was difficult to distinguish between two stimuli.

I find it very unlikely this has anything to do with the rats "knowing" they were better off doing nothing in any kind of conscious, self-reflective way. Skinner demonstrated all types of advanced training in pigeons (i.e. playing ping-pong with their beaks) decades ago using operant conditioning. Can this be completely ruled out in the case of the rat experiment? (I haven't read the study so I don't know.)

In any case it is very interesting how sophisticated learning in the absence of consciousness can be. The process of a bee hive splitting and determining the location of a new hive could just as easily be seen as a "conscious thinking" - scouts are dispatched, possible locations selected, and eventually one location is "chosen" over the others. But it's unlikely bees have a subjective conscious mind!

It seems more likely that these processes are occuring in the absence of conscious awareness, the same way many human behaviors are successfully carried out. We form sentences, play sports and musical instruments, make depth and distance calculations, etc. all without subjective consciousness.
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