Do Insects Have Conscious Thoughts?
The human brain, on average, has roughly 86 billion neurons. In comparison, the average miniscule insect brains contain just roughly a million neurons. This vast difference not only suggests but proves that there is a massive divide between the cognitive abilities of humans vs. insects, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that insects lack a structure of thought.
Previous Conceptions of Insect Thought
In the past, it was assumed that insects operated in a sort of “auto-pilot” fashion. Their actions were theorized to be merely collections of reflexes based on external stimuli. Philosopher Colin Klein of Macquarie University described the minds of insects as “dark inside,” unable to produce thought beyond instinctual impulses and immediate actions.
However, upon discussion with his colleague Andrew Barron, a scientist of honeybees at the university, Professor Klein’s previous viewpoint was challenged, leading to the two professors exploring the topic in depths. Perhaps there may actually be more to their seemingly blank brains…
Basic Building Blocks of Thought
Our consciousness and sense of ‘self’ as humans has been determined to originate either from our complex neocortex’s or from our far more basic midbrain structure. The midbrain helps us to rapidly organize sensory data in order to have an understanding of our location in any given space – in short, it helps us to navigate our world. “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,” says Klein. “It does so, very crudely, by forming a single integrated picture of the world from a single point of view.”
Based on the very basic ability of insects to also navigate through spaces and obstacles, it is reasonable to assume that it is coming from a similar midbrain-like structure. If that is true, and consciousness indeed derives from such a structure, Klein and Barron suggest that it could also be true that insects have a very basic form of self-awareness. This isn’t to say that insects have any deep understanding of “self” or any deep consideration, rather they have “the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience,” Klein and Barron write in their published study.
What this means is that insects are sensing and reacting to their environments from the first-person perspective. They can maintain memories of where their nests are and where to find food, but they don’t just move towards any food all the time like zombies, there is thought behind the action – no matter how basic. Insects can feel the basic needs of hunger, thirst, pain, danger, and “perhaps very simple analogs of anger,” and it is this basic thought-stimuli that drives them to act within their environments. This can be easily tested an observed through the selective actions of bugs. In an environment with several external stimuli to react to, insects “don’t pay attention to all sensory input equally,” Barron explains. “The insect selectively pays attention to what is most relevant to it at the moment.”
These thoughts are the most basic building blocks of consciousness, a “highly distilled sense of self.” So, while their brains may be functioning with a ‘sense’ of subjective experience, this process is just the beginning of consciousness.
A Vastly Departed Relation
The cognition of insects is still extremely departed from even very basic capabilities of the human brain; however, this study provides some evidence suggesting that our brains and the brains of insects may be, very distantly, evolutionarily related. But while there is “strong reason to think that insects and other invertebrates are conscious, their experience of the world is not nearly as rich or as detailed as our experiences.”
Daley, J. (2016) Do Insects Have Consciousness and Ego? , Smithsonian Magazine. SmartNews. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/do-insects-have-consciousness-ego-180958824/ (Accessed: October 2020).
Tucker, A. (2016) Do Insects Have Consciousness?, The Smithsonian Magazine. The Smithsonian Institute. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/do-insects-have-consciousness-180959484/ (Accessed: October 2020).