Insects ‘consciousness’ existed more than 500 million years ago

Posted on April 19, 2016 02:31 am

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Australian scientists reveals that basic consciousness may have first evolved in insects in the Cambrian Period. Insects are conscious, egocentric beings and if consciousness can be broken down into simpler forms and distinct parts of the brain, then this has implications for our understanding of its evolutionary origins. Consciousness comes in many levels, and insects have the capacity for at least one basic form: subjective experience, the researchers argue.The term “insect” is a broad one, generally referring to any small animal that has six legs, a body formed of three parts, and may have wings. Since diverse species under this umbrella term have widely varying sensory systems and ways of life, the authors expect that to be reflected in their conscious lives.Not all living things are thought to have consciousness, though. Plants, for example, do not have the necessary structures for it. Jellyfish and nematodes like unsegmented worms, such as roundworms do not have such hardwiring either.Recent neuroimaging suggests insects are fully hardwired for both consciousness and egocentric behaviour, providing strong evidence that organisms from flies to fleas exhibit both.”When you and I are hungry, we don’t just move towards food; our hunger also has a particular feeling associated with it,” said the paper’s co-author Dr Colin Klein a philosopher at Macquarie University.

“An organism has subjective experience if its mental states feel like something when they happen.”Dr Klein and his colleague biological scientist Associate Professor Andrew Barron, also of Macquarie University, studied detailed neuroimaging reports concerning insect brains.Researchers then compared the structure of such brains with those of humans and other animals.Their work focused on the midbrain, a set of evolutionarily ancient structures that are surrounded by the grey folds of the cortex. The arrangement, they said, looks a bit like the flesh of a peach surrounding the pit.”In humans and other vertebrates,the animals with a backbone and/or spinal column there is good evidence that the midbrain is responsible for the basic capacity for subjective experience,” said Dr Klein.”The cortex determines much about what we are aware of, but the midbrain is what makes us capable of being aware in the first place. It does so, very crudely, by forming a single integrated picture of the world from a single point of view.”Portions of insect brains work in a similar way to the midbrain in humans, performing the same sort of modelling of the world, said the authors.

As for being egocentric, there is now compelling evidence that insects display selective attention to their processing of the world, said Dr Barron.”They don’t pay attention to all sensory input equally,” he explained. “The insect selectively pays attention to what is most relevant to it at the moment, hence it is egocentric.”Dr Barron and Dr Klein believe the origins of consciousness date to at least the Cambrian, which began around 540 million years ago.”When organisms began to move freely in their environment, they faced many new challenges,” Dr Klein explained.”They had to decide where to go next. They had to prioritise their needs. They had to interpret sensory information that changed as a consequence of their motion. That required a new kind of integrated modelling, and that’s where we think consciousness arose.””In contrast, Barron and Klein suggest that it is likely that some of the fundamental underpinnings of consciousness have already been solved in even the smallest brains.”Completely understanding what’s on the mind of an insect is still impossible, however.As Dr Klein said: “In some sense it’s very hard to understand what other people experience, much less animals! But we think that research can reveal much about the contents of insects’ experience, as well as the similarities and differences in the way that these experiences are structured.”

Contador Harrison