Friday, 1 May 2009

The consciousness of lobsters

I am in the railway station at Angers, in western France. It is a pretty town and the station is a light and airy place with lots of glass and very little litter. My French reappeared at about lunchtime in the restaurant where I had a salad with foie gras (which I feel I shouldnt like on moral grounds, but actually find utterly irresistable for its delicious richness and sheer opulence). Also on this salad were a couple of L'angustines and some gambas. Crustaceans always seem a little hapless to me. Aquatic relatives of woodlice, showing all too clearly their kinship in the number and design of their legs and carapaces. I find them, frankly, unappetising when the inescapable alienness of their joints are contemplated. Also I find them far too labour intensive for the meagre amount of food you get from them. Dismantling of the cleverly seamless shell is a rather distasteful and fiddly task, I feel.
I gave them to my appreciative companion, having made a mess of the first fumblings with extraction of the edible bits.
The little face staring back at me from the now detached head appeared to have an air of pathos in its expression. Its beady black eyes seemed to implore me to feel ashamed of my choice from the menu. I felt a bit sorry for it. I shall not ever order one again.

But I wondered briefly how much of a sense of self this tiny lobster had. Whilst alive, any threatening stimulus would have had its mechanisms for self-preservation activated in an instant. But would that be merely an invoking of a mechanistic subroutine of programmed behaviour or would there have been a flicker of something resembling true fear in its little cluster of a few dozen million neurons?

I once attended a lecture by the magnificent Susan, now Baroness Greenfield (Baroness always conjures up an image of a large, ample-bosomed lady in a valkyrie outfit wielding her stern expression like an intimidating sword at all who dare to gaze upon her. She is not like this but equally, I feel, formidable in her own intellectual way).
At this lecture she appeared to be saying that the level of consciousness exhibited by any creature with a brain was a function of the number of neurons actively participating in any one single curcuit at that time. As an example, there was a photo of a man taking a step off a bungee-jump platform. He was not, we assume, overly preoccupied at that moment, with the minutiae of life: The mortgage rate, whether he had the right insurance cover, whether his car would pass the MOT or even whether his job was safe. No, his single focus was far more existential at that moment: "I AM GOING TO DIE!! IMMINENTLY! AAARRRGGGHHH!!!"

And it is arguably at these moments, for instance when every single neuron is unable to tear its attention away from the prospect of imminent death, that we feel most alive.
The rest of the time, a myriad of smaller circuits are tying up our neural resources. They chatter away with minor preoccupations and our attention is scattered and hence we feel less "conscious". We have all had that experience of arriving at work in the car having driven perfectly safely on autopilot, whilst having had a number of in-depth conversations with ourselves over various riveting topics. At these times, it seems we are not really all that "conscious".
And so, by implication, if the most profound consciousness can be achieved with the maximum recruitment of neurons to a single task, animals with fewer neurons available are arguably less conscious. A chimpanzee is, for example, less conscious than a human. And a dog, less conscious than a chimp and so on, down to crustaceans and beyond.

Hence my crustacean friend probably had only the dimmest awareness of the surface of the boiling water that signalled its impending end and absolutely no faculty to contemplate its fate.
I suspect therefore that it did not actually feel fear in any sense that we understand it.
Or perhaps my reasoning is not correct. Perhaps dogs are more conscious because they dont end up worrying about their mortgages and are completely "In the moment". Actually, I am not sure there is any answer to this question since it is how to define what we mean by conscious.
But I know subjectively, there are times when I am more "alive" than others. In those times I am more aware of sensations and colours, details of my environment seem more accessable; in fact my surroundings leap out at me and impress themselves upon my consciousness, whereas much of the time, I find I have to make a conscious effort to notice or be.

I think Baroness Greenfield's point stands and is useful: that a convergence of our neurons on a single task - in practical terms, our "attention" - brings the most subjective experience of consciousness.
Indeed, this is one of the aims of most types of meditation. I have never been very good at meditation. The chattering of my brain tends to make the aim of "mindfulness" very difficult. I get bored and need something to occupy my immense sense of curiosity.

But when I have "succeeded" in attaining that point of "awareness with no thought", it is a very clear moment. There is a quietness which is exquisite and can be observed without any narrative. At those moments too, I feel most conscious. But i dont have the time or the awareness to do it regularly and though there are undoubtedly benefits from regular meditation practise, I have other uses for my brain and my time.
Incidentally, research shows that regular meditators have significant growth in the layers of cells (need research here) that appear to deal with compassion and planning. Meditation, then, has physical effects which possibly may bring benefits in mental function.

And so, where does this get us? Well, making the assumption that "feeling really alive" is a good thing to aim for, we can try the approach suggested by the good Lady. Though we don't have to go as far as a bungee jump (not without its risks, or why would anyone do it?) we can do things which use up our whole mental bandwidth with none left over for idle preoccupation.
Activities i have found which do this are climbing, because I don't want to fall off even though i am roped up, dancing and occasionally any water sports involving surf (though not always, I find: If the surf isnt "right" I can end up very dissatisfied.)
But doing those things that fill our entire brain with a single activity can take us near or to the "really alive" stage. At least, it works for me, and anecdotal evidence seems to indicate it does for most people.
Whether it works for prawns, I have no idea.