Studies in Sentience Tell Us Ours is a World of Many Centres

The science of consciousness has dethroned humanity from the simplistic pyramid we have thus far based our actions on, and opened a new way of viewing and engaging with life around us.

Credit: MattysFlicks/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: MattysFlicks/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Arpita Joshi is an ardent nature-lover and works in the development sector as a researcher-activist.

My seven year old nephew is looking for a flower in my garden thoughtfully, wisely, so he may not hurt too many of them. While doing so he spots a little earthworm who must have died a hot day past. He looks up to me and asks, “Why are we only plucking flowers for Bruno? Why does nobody get him flowers?” It is a rhetorical question as he moves decisively back and puts a magenta geranium on its heat shrivelled body. He looks satisfied with this action and then he turns up to me, smiles gently to say he’s ready.

It is a solemn day. Bruno, my spaniel companion of thirteen years, has died and the ache in our collective hearts is fresh and heavy. I have spent most of my waking moments looking after him through the past two months of a painful illness that finally got the better of him. My muscles are still familiar with the weight of his body as I carried him up and down the stairs of our house when he was no longer able to move. In the days he could still walk, he had made a habit of scratching on my door and then trotting back with me in tow to his bed where I would pat him to sleep. For days to come I will get up with a start responding to the scratching in my heart. My forehead will remember the tiny curve on his – where our heads met and I whispered, pleading him to stay. We have buried him in our backyard amongst the sounds and smells he loved, wrapped in my stole with the demented hope that I may continue to somehow comfort him through his passage across.

In the evening, my nephew will quiz me on death. He understands it slowly through the accumulating losses of presence through the day. I can see by his knitted brow that this first acquaintance with death has also made him aware of all the other potential losses that are scattered across his life ahead. He cautiously asks me how old the people he loves are. How is it that Bruno was old at 13 and people live for so much longer? We make slow headway through the thick veil of grief that clings to us, processing all the minutiae of memory and love. I tell him about puppy exploits to lighten his heart – how Bruno once held a toad in his mouth and ran about in the garden giddy with delight and accomplishment till I finally caught him. The toad hopped out surprisingly unfazed and with one complaining croak, was lost in the hedge. We laugh through our tears.

Later in the week as friends and family begin to respond to our loss, I upend a strange pattern. I find that consolation comes in the form of praise. I am told that Bruno was lucky to have me, someone who looked after him so very well. I am patted heavily on my back for cleaning his soiled rugs, washing him daily, keeping night vigils. I am told how I have elongated his life, made it more meaningful. In another week or so I begin to detect an unease with my grief. In a short span of time suggestions of returning to normalcy and even ‘getting a new dog’ begin to enter the conversation.

It seems an odd little mirror trick, a bending of light. The mutuality of our deep and multifaceted relationship suddenly reduced to a one-dimensional equation between a benevolent superior and their passive subject. This is widely different from how we respond to losses situated within our own species. On such occasions at the centre of discussions are the virtues of the person who has left. Part of the grieving and consolation process is a memorial, a space in which we try and remember how the world was made richer through the presence of a person in our lives. I wonder, like my nephew, where the line in the sand is drawn. How does one measure who is bestowed with the dignity of remembrance?

I was acquainted with this question at an early age. My childhood was filled with great comradeship across species, flora and fauna. It became clear though with age that the cultural valuations of inter-species friendships were low within the confusing hierarchy of the human society I was born into. I learnt that it was more easily accepted if you claimed a best friend of the Homo sapien kind and not the little Canis familiaris who pattered by your feet every waking hour, loved you to bits, consoled you through all your dark fears and who raised you as you raised him in that manner that siblings do. You were termed a lonesome child even though you spent your hours up a guava tree in the company of squawking rose ringed parakeets who would chuck a fruit piece at you every once in a while and cackle wildly.

Growing up meant that one had to clamber above the supposedly wildered constituency of creatures and take up the mantle of ‘species in-charge’ pivoting atop a fictitious, self-congratulatory pyramid of higher consciousness. It is why I find now that all the inherent values and joys of Bruno’s unique life are automatically ascribed to mine. Being a creature apart from human, his life is reduced to that of a material possession of minimum cognition, individuation and consciousness, a thing too easily replaced and void of sentience. This despite the plethora of testimonials that marked our daily life on how he, quite contrarily, possessed all three qualities aplenty. Be it from his strange obsession with toasted bread (he refused any other); dislike for puddles and a distinctive personality that refused to be tamed under the structured onslaught of training. The attempts were made by a professional police dog trainer, who in despair pulled out his hair and declared him ‘untrainable’ even as we later discovered that Bruno understood all commands perfectly well to his convenience. These were not anthropomorphic attributes. These were very real experiences of living with an urbanised dog and quite clearly all spaniels do not display these exact similar quirks.


Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, defines sentience as “the ability to feel, perceive, or be conscious, or to experience subjectivity”. He and others like him have been researching and speaking avidly of animal sentience for a long time. On July 7, 2012, an important milestone in this area was crossed. A prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge and brought out the ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’. Amidst many observations made regarding the rapidly evolving field of consciousness research, it stated in bold letters: “Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

I had been rescuing and living with animals for a long while when I first began coming across these assertions of science. From raising rainbow-coloured butterflies to smuggling stunned and broken birds into my hostel room, I had known in experience what science was finally proving. Little pieces of research that asserted the cross-species presence of reciprocity, empathy, consolation, altruism – characteristics we thought had been unique to our tribe, were coming together to construct a far more curious Earth. In a 2016 interview, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental and forest biology and author of Gathering Moss, stated: “I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right? What we’re revealing is the fact that they have extraordinary capacities, which are so unlike our own, (…) in fact, they’re sensing their environment, responding to their environment in incredibly sophisticated ways. (…) we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.”

Yet even as science reveals the exciting depths and variations in sentience across species, the primary experience that defines our relationship with the world continues to be through the growing empire of homogenised consumerism. Here, we are surrounded by the powerful opposing force of commodification that rationalises and appoints simplified economic value per the narrow confines of immediate or created human utility. Alongside this cold narrative of our relationship with the world in monetised terms, long opaque industrial supply chains that sometimes span countries and continents have led to further distancing between the producer and the consumer. It becomes very difficult for an ethically minded consumer to keep track of the resources and practices that inform the product they are consuming.

This collective emotional distance allows for the survival and growth of large-scale, sometimes heavily industrialised, markets for meat, leather, luxury goods, even pets (under categories of sports and recreation). It justifies the ‘efficiency’ models of these industries, where many creatures are often confined in unnatural spaces, and treated and maintained for their ‘value addition’ and ‘production’ capacities alone, neglecting their holistic well-being. Long gone are the green farms that the likes of James Herriot wrote about, replete with cows and other creatures full of personality and panache, not to mention the closer-to-home supply chains (localisation, as we now call it), which made production and consumption a phenomena that was amenable to oversight. Instead we are increasingly faced with poorly regulated practices such as puppy mills, bear farms, factory farms for domestic livestock and even extensive market-driven poaching practices that have led to alarming decreases in the population of elephants, pangolins, tigers and rhinos, among others.

In this scenario, sentience is an additional inconvenient truth to the many that are stocking up against the current zeitgeist. It pulls aside the curtains of profound desensitisation, of othering, that reduces both nature and humanity to a dangerously disempowering passivity and pushes us to reconsider the outcomes of our actions. As Jane Goodall admitted in her foreword to Amy Hatkoff’s book The Inner World of Farm Animals, “I looked at the piece of animal on my plate, and it symbolised fear, pain, and death. I stopped eating it.” This is not to advocate a large-scale conversion to vegetarianism but simply that the recognition of sentience has consequences we must find the courage to grapple with.

‘Othering’ is a concept that was born within academia but has since found mention and use in more mainstream analysis. It implies a process whereby we ascribe distinction and higher value to a set of characteristics that come to define one group by the exclusion of an ‘other’. For example, colonialism shows us how the convenient divide between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘uncivilised’ allowed for entire populations to be dehumanised and exploited. It justified the assertion and accumulation of power and resources, as well as the violence that was perpetrated in its name. As consciousness studies are showing, our pyramids and categories regarding sentience are just as flawed, convenient and violent.

As recently as the 1980s, it was a widely held belief that newborn babies were not as sentient as adults. Specifically, newborns it was said felt no pain because the faculties for feeling pain were not believed to have been fully developed. Additionally, scientists also believed that any early experience of pain would not be retained in the conscious memory of the child. These beliefs led to practices where little babies were often put through harrowing experiences, such as surgeries, without any anaesthesia or analgesics. What changed this view was extensive activism and new research. We now know these beliefs to be deeply incorrect.

This is the effort and energy we now need to bring to the theatre of sentience in other creatures. Scientists are increasingly referring to the current geo-ecological period, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities, as the anthropocene. Other than extensive climate change, this period is marked by what biologists are suggesting is the sixth mass extinction of species on Earth i.e., the possible loss of more than 75% of all species in a geologically short interval. This has happened only five times in the last 540 million years or so. According to a 2015 International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) document, of the 77,300 species documented by them worldwide, 63% of cycads, 41% of amphibians, 33% of reef-building corals, 25% of mammals and 13% of birds are already under threat.

These are not distant occurrences. Creatures and landscapes we have lived with, those that have lit our imagination and our lives with wonder, awe and fascination, that have healed us in times of grief, are being pushed to the brink. These events are taking place around us, because of us and are shaping the present and future of our species.

In the 16th century, heliocentrism, the idea that the Sun is at the centre of the Solar System, dethroned humanity from the previous geocentric belief that had stationed Earth at the cosmic centre. The transition between the theories came with resistance from the Church and at great cost to the astronomer Galileo Galilei in particular, who supported heliocentrism. He found himself punished for heresy and was kept in house arrest for the remainder of his life. In Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Galileo ponders: “The universe has lost its centre overnight, and woken up to find it has countless centres. So that each one can now be seen as the centre, or none at all. Suddenly there is a lot of room.” The science of consciousness, similarly, has dethroned humanity from the simplistic pyramid we have thus far based our actions on, and opens to us a dazzling new way of viewing and engaging with life around us. As Brecht’s Galileo says, it allows our imagination to split open to a world of ‘countless centres’, one in which ‘there is a lot of room’ to coexist and grow.

Mary Oliver, in the poem Her Grave, writes: “A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.” A culture of humility and respect, of awe and compassion for the myriad forms of sentience, would only enrich, not deplete, our humanity.