Can a lobster feel pain in the same way as you or I?
We know that they have the same sensors – called nociceptors – that cause us to flinch or cry when we are hurt. And they certainly behave like they are sensing something unpleasant. When a chef places them in boiling water, for instance, they twitch their tails as if they are in agony.
But are they actually “aware” of the sensation? Or is that response merely a reflex?
When you or I perform an action, our minds are filled with a complex conscious experience. We can’t just assume that this is also true for other animals, however – particularly ones with such different brains from our own. It’s perfectly feasible – some scientists would even argue that it’s likely – that a creature like a lobster lacks any kind of internal experience, compared to the rich world inside our head.
“With a dog, who behaves quite a lot like us, who is in a body which is not too different from ours, and who has a brain that is not too different from ours, it’s much more plausible that it sees things and hears things very much like we do, than to say that it is completely ‘dark inside’, so to speak,” says Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But when it comes down to a lobster, all bets are off.”
The question of whether other brains – quite alien to our own – are capable of awareness, is just one of the many conundrums that arise when scientists start thinking about consciousness. When does an awareness of our own being first emerge in the brain? Why does it feel the way it does? And will computers ever be able to achieve the same internal life?
Tononi may have a solution to these puzzles. His "integrated information theory" is one of the most exciting theories of consciousness to have emerged over the last few years, and although it is not yet proven, it provides some testable hypotheses that may soon give a definitive answer.