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Consciousness and Sentience

Understanding the evolution of consciousness will not come from looking for intelligent behavior in other animals, but rather from understanding the fundamental mechanisms that support subjective awareness and selective attention, which we now know insects have.

Consciousness is a summary, produced by the non-conscious brain, and tossed up for us to view. Consciousness requires extra brain work to produce. The hard parts of thinking all happen below the level of consciousness, and we must make an effort to tap what is going on. The thinking that our brain does below consciousness, or before we are consciously aware of what it is doing, is the important part. All animals have the general capabilities of that most important part, and whether they are conscious or not doesn’t much matter.

The Mind of Your Horse

The brains of mammals are very similar, and differ in degree rather than kind.

The human desire to believe that we are the most intelligent species has led to a number of comparisons of brains. Brain size must matter, but our brains are smaller than those of the elephant or whale. Some researchers find pleasure in noting that some parts of our brain are much bigger than the same parts in other animals. For instance, our friend Cowboy Bob reports that “the brain cavity of a horse is filled with a lot more than what we usually think of as the “brain.” Although the space would, in fact, hold a small grapefruit, the cerebral hemisphere — or “thinking” portion of the brain cavity is a lot smaller.”

If horses could talk, though, they might point out that the brain cavity of their skulls is about the size of ours, and that lots of preprocessing happens between the nostrils and the brain, and between the eyes and the brain. If we compare head size of Mr. Horse and Mr. Man, Mr. Horse does just fine.

Fear, Flight, Fight, Freeze

Pain doesn’t merely affect a few nerves. It affects the entire nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is an unconscious control system found in all animals that regulates such things as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and the fight-flight-freeze response. When triggered, the ANS quickly decides if we should fight, flee, or freeze. If fighting appears to be the best solution, the ANS triggers anger and aggressive behavior. If fleeing seems like a much better way to solve the problem, then flight is in order. But if neither will do — perhaps because we are in the jaws of the tiger, we may go limp. This freeze response, it turns out, is often the best way to avoid further injury from a predator.

Your horse’s desire to flee a dangerous situation is no different than yours. He and you differ only in what you judge to be dangerous. So we might be wiser if we were to say “flight or fight” rather than “fight or flight”. But that leaves out freezing, which is our last best hope for survival. If we cannot escape and cannot win a fight to the death, freezing may come to our rescue. Horses are flight animals. Fight animals. Freeze animals. They will do what it takes to stay alive. That makes them just like all other animals, including us.

Early Learning and Imprinting

Early research focused on the following reaction of precocial birds, something that is now called “filial imprinting”. Filial imprinting is useful in fostering a mother-offspring bond, and makes perfect sense. Even if a bird could learn to follow a man in boots or follow a toy train, in nearly every case the big moving thing nearby is mom, and learning to follow her is a key to survival. We can be comfortable believing that such a feat did not originate with birds, but that young dinosaurs of many species might have also followed their moms.

Filial imprinting seems to have been found in every species of bird that has been studied. We are all familiar with pictures of ducklings following a human or a dog that they have imprinted on. Whether filial imprinting occurs in other species is an open question. While there is a huge amount of early learning in mammals, it is not clear that any of this learning should be called “imprinting.” While the general public is comfortable with the word “imprinting” when talking about young mammals such as foals, scientists don’t use the term. Scientists don’t use the term “imprinting” when discussing mammals because mammals don’t imprint the way birds do. I don’t think it is appropriate to talk about imprinting in horses, but I’ll need to account for the positive effects of early exposure, so keep reading.

An Unhealthy Mind

Once upon a time, someone captured a wild horse and succeeded in riding her or milking her. Eventually, humans figured out how to breed horses. The horses that prospered in the relationship were those who were quickest at habituation — the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response through repeated exposure. Over generations with humans, the horses that survived were successively less skittish, less nervous, more relaxed when confronting new sights and sounds. These horses were the bravest of the band. Today’s horses can handle scary stuff a lot better than yesterday’s. In fact, they seem to be able to endure almost anything. Perhaps, though, our breeding has gone too far. No one who climbed on a feral mustang would claim that it was lazy. Only the dull horses at the barn, those who’ve had the shit kicked out of them again and again, are called lazy.

Much of what we demand of our horses is challenging, running counter to their natural behavior. The challenges of unnatural horsemanship affect all ridden horses, regardless of setting: trail ride, obstacle course, eventing.

Learned Helplessness

Some horses who struggle with the task of avoiding unavoidable discomfort learn to give up and become mindlessly compliant, apathetic, dull and listless. Yank hard on the bit, and they won’t turn and bite you. They’ll just suffer. Kick them hard, and they won’t buck. They’ll just suffer. A horse who believes it has no control over painful stuff may give up trying to avoid the pain. It willingly does whatever nonsense their rider asks of them. It seems to tolerate everything without excitement. This condition is called learned helplessness. We have created a lesson horse. I have met many dull horses who seem to have no life left in them. I do not like those who made him this way. I do not want such a horse. Seeing them breaks my heart.

Learned helplessness was discovered in 1967 when researchers immobilized a dog and exposed it to electric shocks that could neither be avoided nor escaped. Twenty-four hours later, the dog was placed in a situation in which electric shock could be terminated by a simple response. The dog did not make this response; instead, it just sat passively. Dogs in a control group, who had not experienced uncontrollable shock or who experienced shocks which they could control, reacted vigorously to the shock and learned to turn it off.