Are animals aware of their suffering?

Are animals aware of their suffering? The question is so profound that it seems beyond the reach of science. It fully affects one of the most fundamental problems in the unique hierarchy of philosophers: the qualia, such as the feeling of redness induced by red, or the conscious pain produced by cruelty. But policies to alleviate animal suffering – or not to do so – depend entirely on science. Do animals suffer, do they feel, do they have any rights? Broadly speaking, the best available science supports that idea, albeit without unanimity.

The issue goes far beyond neurology. From a technical point of view, knowing whether an animal has consciousness is the same problem as knowing whether a patient has it in a coma or in a vegetative state. Both are objective questions about the structure and activity of the brain. Everything that happens in our mind has a correlate in neural activity, and consciousness is no exception. Researchers already have a conscientiometer, a device that assigns a number to a subject’s degree of consciousness, for example while he is anesthetized, or if he has suffered brain damage. With a few adjustments, it could be applied to any animal, which would give us an objective measure of the degree to which an animal can feel and suffer.

Defining consciousness is very difficult – like defining anything without knowing what it is – but sometimes a parable works better than a definition: consciousness is what you lose when you fall asleep and recover when you wake up. The folds of the duvet that covers you, the smell of coffee coming from the kitchen, the dodecaphonic quartet of the horns that filters the window. The sensation of being alive. Also the capacity to suffer, the talent to feel pain, your memories and the dark omen of your future. “I don’t know how to define it, but I recognize it when I see it,” as Judge Potter Stewart said about pornography.

Despite the philosophical problems that planet its definition, neuroscientists have in recent years taken remarkable steps towards understanding consciousness that fully affect the debate on animal suffering. The reference document remains the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, agreed in 2012 by a neuroscientific elite in that British city. And recent research has only strengthened their arguments.

Philip Low, founder and executive director of the neurodiagnostic company NeuroVigil in California; Christof Koch of the Allen Institute of Brain Science in Seattle; David Edelman of the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, California; and other leading neuroscientists delivered a clear message in the Cambridge statement. In both humans and other animals, homologous circuits have been identified whose activity coincides with conscious experience. Moreover, neural circuits that are activated while a person feels an emotion are essential for a mouse to experience the same emotion. This is striking, as humans and mice have evolved separately for 200 million years. It points to a common origin of emotional systems in the early stages of animal life.

“Although there have been many updates in neuroscience, the field long ago came to the conclusion embodied in the Cambridge Declaration that at least many non-human animals, including all mammals, are aware of and have the capacity to suffer,” Low says by e-mail. Aware of being talking to a Spanish media, the neuroscientist is very critical of bullfighting. “Other countries, including Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, India, New Zealand, Portugal and Switzerland, are moving into the future and have begun to make progressive changes,” he says.

“Much progress still needs to be made in pharmaceutical research, as these companies can only patent artificial molecules that they then test on animals,” Low continues. “Every year some 100 million vertebrates are sacrificed, more than 40 billion dollars are invested and 94% of molecules fail in animals; and 98% of those that pass end up failing in human trials. This is suboptimal and very expensive. Understanding the role our lifestyle, and especially our diet, plays in health will be as essential as identifying early disease markers. People should pay more attention to studies involving dairy and red meat in Parkinson’s and cancer, respectively.

Juan Lerma, research professor at the Instituto de Neurociencias in Alicante, also assumes that animals have consciousness, sensitivity and the capacity to suffer, but points out some nuances. “We have to flee from all anthropocentrism”, he says, “people tend to apply our own feelings to animals; it makes no sense to say that a fish gets depressed, but it is even said in technical articles. The mice of the animalarium, here under my laboratory, are not asking themselves right now if they have consciousness.

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