Monday, January 15, 2007

Scientist: cockroaches may have consciousness

"We have literally no idea at what level of brain complexity consciousness stops," says Christof Koch, another Caltech neuroscientist. "Most people say, 'For heaven's sake, a bug isn't conscious.' But how do we know? We're not sure anymore. I don't kill bugs needlessly anymore."

This month's Discover magazine has an interesting article entitled Consciousness in a Cockroach

Most of the scientists in the article are not suggesting that cockroaches have consciousness. However, the article does go on to say that the structure of the brains of living beings-- from fruit flies to humans-- are incredibly similar.

On the surface, the brains of insects and mammals look nothing alike. Only from studies of cell-by-cell connections does the astounding similarity emerge. One afternoon Christopher Theall, one of Strausfeld's Ph.D. students, shows me his own experimental setup for tapping into a portion of the cockroach brain known as the mushroom body. This mushroom-shaped brain structure is thought to be analogous to the mammalian hippocampus, a brain component involved in forming memories of places.

One of the researchers,Bruno van Swinderen, hesitates to say that invertebrates have consciousness. Nonetheless, he believes that an insect's ability to retain attention and store in memory approaches human consciousness:

"Attention," says van Swinderen, "is a whole-brain phenomenon. A thing is not purely visual, not purely olfactory. It's a binding together of different parts that for us signify one thing. Why couldn't the fly's mechanism [of attention] be directed to a succession of its memories?" he asks. "That, to me, is just a short hop, skip, and a jump away from what might be consciousness." The difference between the memories of a fly and a human might be a matter of degree. The human can store a lot more memories and can therefore maintain a more sophisticated personal narrative of his past and present. But van Swinderen believes "it could be exactly the same mechanism in a fly and a human." Although there is still no evidence to decide either way, the result could be consciousness.

The evidence is not conclusive, but it tends to suggest that an organism does not need a very well-developed brain to have consciousness.

This has interesting implications for fetal rights. One of the most cited reasons for acknowledging unborn children to be equals is that they lack consciousness, especially in the first trimester.

Even if unborn children have no consciousness, the argument is fallacious. However, should it be shown that first trimester unborn children do have consciousness, it would dispel that argument.

Research into the physiology and psychology of unborn children is fairly recent. Thirty years ago, it was believed newborns did not feel much pain, let alone unborn children. Now, the growing consensus is that unborn children feel pain past 20 weeks, although some suggest that they are capable of feeling pain as early as week 11.

This research could be very useful to the cause of unborn children.