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Scientists Prove Animals Have Consciousness

by Amy Painter

Last week, NBC News released a story by journalist Evan Bush titled, “Scientists push new paradigm of animal consciousness, saying even insects may be sentient.” 

In case you missed this watershed piece, here are some interesting highlights Bush shares from recent scientific studies: bees enjoy playing with wooden balls for fun; the cleaner wrasse fish recognizes itself in underwater mirrors; and octopuses will avoid settings where they experienced previous pain.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read this “news.” Every day, Laura and

Two gold fish
Some fish are able to recognize themselves in mirrors.

I connect with highly sentient cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, reptiles…and, in general, find them to be some of the most sensitive and compassionate beings on the planet.

It’s gratifying to see studies – even if they are a bit late to the party – documenting what many of us have known since the moment we first witnessed an animal nurturing her young or expressing delight in response to a belly scratch. Was there ever any doubt that our fellow fur, feathered, and scaled friends feel and emote?

Regardless, researchers have now shown that a range of creatures, including not only mammals, but insects, fish, and some crustaceans, display evidence of conscious thought.

For the sake of establishing a common understanding of the meaning of consciousness, animal sentience denotes, “the ability to have subjective experiences: to sense and map the outside world, to have capacity for feelings like joy or pain. In some cases, it can mean that animals possess a level of self-awareness,” according to the article. 

So now that the research bears out, with more studies in the pipeline, there are major societal implications. These studies could mark a sea change in the way we treat other species.

To date, more than 40 researchers have signed “The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness,” which states: “When there is a realistic possibility of conscious experience in an animal, it is irresponsible to ignore that possibility in decisions affecting that animal. We should consider welfare risks and use the evidence to inform our responses to these risks.”

Could this alter the lens through which we view animals, inviting us to rethink the laws, policies, and societal norms that allow us to use them as research subjects, dietary staples, and wardrobe accessories?

Over the past decade, new experiments into animal consciousness have revealed that zebrafish demonstrate curiosity about new objects in their environment while cuttlefish are able to remember things they have seen or smelled.

So, the question in scientific circles is no longer which animals are sentient, but which are not?

I can’t help but wonder: Why not all of them? What if we expanded the aperture of our rationalist minds to include all living beings with whom we share the planet?

In 2012, Scientific American featured the work of researcher Daniel Chamovitz, author of the book, What a Plant Knows, who revealed that plants can see, feel, smell – and remember.

While sensitivity may not be the same as consciousness, researchers are exploring whether filamentous fungi have minds. In a study titled “Hyphal and mycelial consciousness: the concept of the fungal mind,” (Fungal Biology),” researcher Nicholas P. Money found that hyphae and mycelia show primitive intelligence with decision-making capabilities. More specifically, mycelia exhibit spatial recognition, learning, and short-term memory. By sending electrical signals through this underground fungal network, trees are able to learn, remember, caretake one another, and prolong the lives of dead stumps.

Is it so hard to believe that the world around us is conscious, aware, and alive in ways we may not have fully acknowledged?

This may be a challenge for some, but what if we also considered inorganic compounds? I can’t prove the latter is sentient, although I’ve cultivated a lifelong belief that crystals, minerals, and rocks hold immense power along with a unique form of consciousness.

Researcher, author, and artist Veda Austin has spent years documenting water’s intelligence. Her book The Secret Intelligence of Water: Macroscopic Evidence of Water Responding to Human Consciousness, provides a bold new vision of nature’s infinite creativity and intelligence. Austin’s work builds on that of researcher Dr. Masaru Emoto who discovered that human words, thoughts, sounds, and intentions impact water’s molecular structure, providing evidence that water is conscious, sensitive, and mutable. Emoto documents the positive impact of prayer, and of words such as love, on water’s molecular structure versus the words “I hate you,” for instance. Austin considers water the driving force of nature and the key to the information exchange between all forms of life. If this life-giving element stores information, as many believe, it may underlie the very essence of all conscious beings on our planet.

So, what if we are surrounded by not just sentience, but by something more? By infinite forms of wisdom? By beings in a multitude of shapes and sizes who have unique innate gifts that, if we take the time to listen, can enrich our experiences in profound ways?

Veda Austin sums it up beautifully. Although she speaks of water, she could be referring to animals, plants… "If we think water can feel, we will care for it,” she writes. “If we think it is intelligent, we will learn from it."

And this is why it’s so important that we remain open to the possibility that sentience abounds in the world around us. If we are to be motivated to protect our planet, and all of its inhabitants, we must first be inspired to care.

In the case of animals, they are not classified as sentient under U.S. law, at least not yet. However, at the state level, Oregon recognizes animals as sentient, and capable of feeling pain, stress, and fear. Washington and California have considered forbidding octopus farming.

At Kindred Beings, we're fortunate to work with humans who view their animals as beloved family members. Many prioritize their animals’ wellbeing as much as they do their human children, though some will only admit this to me discretely.

For these caring individuals, I feel such deep appreciation. I hope that through our work to shed light on animals’ roles in our lives, and their unique needs and desires, we can help more and more people see their kindred beings as not just sentient, but as family members, friends, and wisdom keepers who make life on this planet so much more precious.

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