Insects Have a Conscience and are Egocentric

Researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia have addressed the issues of consciousness and ego across the animal spectrum. They recently published a study showing that insects have a capacity for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience.

The brain of a cover fly

The brain of a cover fly

Using detailed neuroimaging, the researchers studied reports on insect brains and compared the structure of their brains, particularly the midbrain to that of humans and other animals. The midbrain is an evolutionary structure surrounded by gray folds in the cortex, resembling peach flesh surrounding a pit. They believe that parts of insect midbrains work similarly to that of humans, in performing the same kind of modeling of the world.

Colin Klein, a researcher at Macquarie University and co-author of the study says,

In humans and other vertebrates there is good evidence that the midbrain is responsible for subjective experience. 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.

The neuroimaging results show how insects are hardwired for both conscious and egocentric behavior. They display selective attention to the way they process the world around them.

The brain scan of a Mantis

The brain scan of a Mantis

Andrew Barron, also with Macquarie University and co-author of the study says,

They don’t pay attention to all sensory input equally. The insect selectively pays attention to what is most relevant to it at the moment, hence egocentric.

Klein and Barron believe that the origins of consciousness began in the Cambrian, or even Precambrian periods, over 600 million years ago.

Klein says,

When organisms began to move freely in their environment, they faced many new challenges. They had to decide where to go next. They had to prioritize their needs. They had to interpret sensory information that changed as a consequence of their motion. That required a new kind of integrated modeling, and that’s where we think consciousness arose. 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 difference in the way that these experiences are structured.

It’s interesting that not all living things are thought to have consciousness. Plants, jellyfish and nematodes (types of worms) are thought to not have hardwiring.

Maybe politicians as well?