Do Insects Have Consciousness?

©. Joseph Calev

New research that actually makes a lot of sense is as exciting as it is startling.

Most people have no problem killing an insect. The creepy, crawly, flying things ... they bite and sting, they’re seen as dirty, their buzz vexes and they can be vectors for disease. Swat and smash, no second thought.

But what if insects were more than just tiny-brained robots driven by instinct? This is what researchers from Australia’s Macquarie University set out to explore in a study about insects and the origins of consciousness. Their conclusion? Insects have the capacity “for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience.” Oh dear. Yay ... but yikes.

What they discovered is that even though they may be tiny, the brains of insects share similarities in structure to those of humans, which could show “a rudimentary form of consciousness,” reports Smithsonian:

The authors of the paper, philosopher Colin Klein and cognitive scientist Andrew Barron of Australia’s Macquarie University, aren't arguing that insects have deep thoughts and desires, like “I want to be the fastest wasp in my nest” or “Yum, this pear nectar is good!” But they do suggest that invertebrates could be motivated by subjective experience, which is the very beginning of consciousness.

“We want to know something more: whether insects can feel and sense the environment from a first-person perspective,” the researchers write. “In philosophical jargon, this is sometimes called 'phenomenal consciousness.'”

The study authors describe a rudimentary sense of ego, though quite different from the staggering heights out oh-so-human egos can attain. The insect ego is more about discerning important environmental cues – what to act on and what to ignore. “They don’t pay attention to all sensory input equally,” Klein tells Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News. “The insect selectively pays attention to what is most relevant to it at the moment, hence (it is) egocentric.”

Even if insect behavior is completely unlike our own, there might be important similarities between their brains and ours, note the authors. There is a theory that the center of human consciousness is not in our big human neocortex, but in the more primitive midbrain – a much more humble place that synthesizes data into a way that helps us figure out the basics of our environment.

“In humans and other vertebrates (animals with a backbone and/or spinal column) there is good evidence that the midbrain is responsible for the basic capacity for subjective experience,” Klein tells Viegas. “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.”

That combined with recent research of insect brains shows that their central nervous system probably performs the same function that the midbrain does in larger animals, reports Smithsonian.

“That is strong reason to think that insects and other invertebrates are conscious. Their experience of the world is not as rich or as detailed as our experience – our big neocortex adds something to life,” Klein and Barron write. “But it still feels like something to be a bee.”