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Thoughts on consciousness in deer, etc.

by Greg Krehbiel on 9 December 2012

I’ve spent a little time recently sitting in a deer stand watching various critters go by, and it provided an interesting opportunity to think about what they’re thinking.

It’s easy to project our way of thinking on a deer — as if the deer is walking along, hears a sound, and then looks up and thinks, “what’s that sound? Is that dangerous or not?” etc.

Or the deer catches your scent and thinks, “Oh, that’s a person, I want to avoid him.”

It seems just as likely to me — or maybe more likely — that all that’s happening is that the deer feels less comfortable about walking one direction — towards a particular scent, for example — and more comfortable about walking the other direction.

There doesn’t seem to be any need for it to actually “think” about why it’s doing that. I’m not saying it doesn’t, I’m just saying “thought” doesn’t seem to add anything necessary to the equation.

I also wonder how the deer think about terrain. As I’m wandering around in the dark, trying to find my tree stand, I’ve got a map in my head. I think in terms of direction and distance, and I form a mental image of the landscape.

That doesn’t seem necessary. It would be entirely possible for a creature to navigate without having that mental representation of the landscape as a “conscious” thought. Just as a pianist can reach for the C# without actually thinking about where the key is, it seems entirely possible that the deer just has some less-than-conscious routine running in the back of his head, which gets translated into whatever rudimentary decision-making it does as “this way feels better.”

No big point here, just thinking about “thought.” We carry on little conversations with ourselves in our heads, form mental images and weigh options in a very “thoughtful” way, and have a subjective experience of working through the whole thing. But a lot of the things we do (especially the things we share with animals) don’t seem to require that. In fact, I’m pretty sure that “thinking things through” sometimes leads us to do the “wrong” thing from a strictly animal perspective.

-- 2012-12-09  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 2

  1. RootCzar
    11 December 2012 @ 7:59 pm

    not agreeing or disagreeing with any premise … but just happened to catch this a moment ago (it’s #23 of 25 incredible photos, so scroll once you click…)

    http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/07/national-geographic-traveler-photo-contest-2012/100339/#img23

    ‘with much empathy’ … would represent most likely an anthropomorphism … but, still ….

  2. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    11 December 2012 @ 8:31 pm

    Assuming you’re referring to the one with the elephants.

    I don’t doubt that animals experience some sense of grief at the loss of a companion.