Evidence and Inference: Blind Spots in the Neuroscience of Non-Human Minds

Published: Oct 29, 2023
Synthesis Anglophone Journal of Comparative Literary Studies Comparative Literature re-storying stories multispecies survival multispecies narratives brain neuroscience consciousness sentience animal minds hard problem neurophilosophy Hachikō
Matthew Kirkcaldie

Empathy, theory of mind and cognitive inference are used by humans to optimise our thinking and decision-making in social groups. Often, we extend this courtesy to nonhuman animals, acting as if they are conscious and experience the world in much the way that we do. Evidence from neuroscience suggests that nonhuman primates, at least, recognise us in a similar way. At the cellular level, comparative neuroanatomy demonstrates that all mammal brains are fundamentally similar and differ only in degree and proportion. If we believe that the physical structure of the brain is the seat of thought, then we have little basis for excluding animal consciousness. Nonetheless, the personal and institutional ethics which guide neuroscientists often make a categorical distinction between humans and other animals on this quality. Companion animals have been bred for their cognitive simpatico and nonverbal communication, but if science insists on a qualitative difference between human and animal minds, our view of dogs’ personalities and intentions would be a delusion. There is a tension, manifested as descriptive blind spots, between our appreciation of animals as kindred spirits and our explanatory accounts of their brains. Should we face the implications of our common anatomy and behaviour, admit that nonhuman animals are conscious, and therefore acknowledge their rights? Can our instinctive recognition of intention and cognition in animals be reconciled with science? If so, neuroscience might help with ‘re-storying’ the world by incorporating new perspectives to acknowledge animal minds.

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Author Biography
Matthew Kirkcaldie , University of Tasmania

Matthew Kirkcaldie is a senior lecturer in neuroscience and dementia at the University of Tasmania. After PhD studies on the structure of neural cells, he has held research and teaching positions, with a particular interest in fresh ways of teaching neuroscience. His research focuses on the structure of the cerebral cortex, particularly those elements closely linked to attention and cognition. He has published brain atlases and reference works documenting the similarities of human and other mammal brains, including the common underlying genetics which shape them, and is also interested in the pathology of brain diseases and how this damage may compromise functions. He has coauthored a textbook, The Brain: An Introduction to Functional Neuroanatomy, with another in development, and has advisory roles for the International Brain Bee, fostering neuroscience knowledge among high school students worldwide. He lives in Hobart (nipaluna) in Tasmania (lutruwita) and loves its unique environment and wildlife, stewarded across millennia by traditional owners and custodians, the muwinina and palawa peoples.

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