Playing around with the study of self-awareness

Sometimes, the most basic principles on a particular subject are the points we overlook. Sometimes, it’s so obvious that we might overlook it.

I feel this can be the case for the study of self-awareness and state of consciousness in animals.

One of the key factors in determining whether an individual has self-awareness is play. If an animal enjoys playing, that animal is self-aware and thus possesses a state of consciousness. One must be, I contend, self-aware to enjoy something – from a tasty donut for you or me, to tossing around a stuffed toy or enjoying that same tasty donut for a dog or cat.

And of course, I can’t stress this point enough, as I’ve done in the past. We should not willfully inflict pain and suffering on anyone or anything that is self-aware.

How far down the tree of life are animals self-aware? I’m not clear on that one. I would theorize that possibly, at some point for lower-order animals (for lack of a better phrase) the degree of self-awareness might be reduced. We might consider the gold fish is not as self-aware as the cat. Or the fish’s self-awareness might not be as complex, as compared to the feline.

This is where you jump in with your thoughts ….


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by D Gary Grady on August 17, 2010 at 2:18 am

    I think you;’re right to view it as a continuum rather than an either-or question. On the subject of responding to something tasty like a donut, I think it’s hard to infer self-awareness by mere observation, because it’s hard to distinguish between conscious enjoyment and an unconscious reflex, or even a programmed response in a toy or a game. Rather I assume that dogs (and other animals) consciously enjoy play and tasty food because I have other reasons to infer that they are conscious.

    Example: Dogs show strong evidence of dreaming (and are even capable of sleepwalking), something that almost be definition implies thought. One might hypothesize that when a dog’s feet twitch in its sleep it isn’t product of dreaming but merely the firing some motor neurons. But foot twitching is often combined with other behaviors, such as sleep-woofing, that’s suggestive of a response to an imaginary stimulus. When humans move and vocalize in their sleep we routinely interpret that as dreaming. Given that humans and dogs are mammals, a similar cause to a similar behavior should not be rule out a priori. Just as it’s important not to anthropomorphize animals, it’s also important not to suppose without evidence that humans are somehow entirely different from all other animals. We probably are unique in some ways (our capacity for language with grammar, for example), but that’s something we infer from evidence, not from an a priori notion that we’re special.


    • Posted by Tom Grady on August 17, 2010 at 12:45 pm

      I was moving to the humorous side on dogs and the tasty donut. But as far as play – and enjoying play – I believe we can infer self-awareness from – for example – the types of play dogs engage in.

      I see our dogs trying to get another dog to play tug with a toy. Ernest T, our basset-lab mix will move a stuffed toy up to the face of another dog, as if to request they grab it to play tug with him.
      We might not be able to suggest a gold fish has self-awareness to this degree, if we might see it playing with a piece of gravel. But I think in the case of dogs and cats – coupled yes with our knowledge of other behavioral traits – we can use play as evidence of self-awareness and state of consciousness.

      In Ernest T’s example, he’s is basically wanting another to play with him. This behavior is strong evidence of self-awareness.


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