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The best books on Animal Consciousness

recommended by David Peña-Guzmán

When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness by David Peña-Guzmán

Out now

When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness
by David Peña-Guzmán


The more we learn about the minds of other species, the more we are forced to question any assumptions that might previously have been made about their inner lives. Here, the philosopher David Peña-Guzmán talks us through the profound questions thrown up by research into animal cognition, perception and emotion, as he recommends five of the best books on animal consciousness.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness by David Peña-Guzmán

Out now

When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness
by David Peña-Guzmán


You’ve recommended five fantastic books on animal consciousness for us, thank you. Descartes once characterised animals as automata—as biological machines—and for a long time animal researchers made similar assumptions. But cognitive ethology now suggests that a great deal more is going on in the minds of animals than we once believed. Why do you think it’s important for us to study the minds of animals?

We live in a world populated by what I call ‘other spirits’; those are spirits with material bodies who live and die, and who add colour, meaning, and value to the universe. To me, this is already almost magical—that there are other minds out there, radically unlike our own, and that we can make some form of contact with them.

I find the study of animal minds interesting because the minds of animals are themselves fascinating. In some ways they are uncannily similar to us, and in some ways they couldn’t be more different. And navigating this tension between sameness and difference is as exciting as it is enriching.

But we need to study the minds of animals also for ethical reasons. We have to think about how to live alongside these others spirits with whom we share the world.

Why do you think there has been so much resistance to the idea of animal consciousness?

There is a cultural and political answer to this question.

Culturally, we have grown up in a culture where the superiority of humans is assumed. This is something that we see in the West already from the time of the Ancient Greeks. And that means that, from a very young age, we are indoctrinated into an anthropocentric worldview that is very difficult to dissolve. Breaking out of this worldview can be as hard as learning a different language—or inventing a new one. This is serious work that requires lots of ‘un-learning’—we have to unlearn patterns of thinking and habits of action. Thankfully, I get the sense that more and more people are beginning to this work and that anthropocentrism is increasingly coming under fire in different social arenas—in philosophy, politics, jurisprudence, economics, art, entertainment, and so on.

“We have grown up in a culture where the superiority of humans is assumed”

The political side of the equation has to do with what we do to animals for the sake of human comfort and benefit. We have to face the unpalatable fact that we treat animals primarily as sources of food and nutrition, that our principle interaction with them is at the kitchen table. This presupposes the existence of a hierarchy organised according to an imbalance of power, where humans treat other animals as objects for the advancement of our own ends simply because we can. And one way in which we justify this hierarchy is by insisting that only we, humans, are conscious of the world around us.

Moving away from that hierarchy requires changing institutions that we are currently invested in, such as scientific research, factory farming, zoos, and so on. But it also requires a momentous shift in our assumptions about animals, especially our assumptions about their mental and emotional lives.

Interesting. You have written on this subject; your recent book, When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness, proposes that many species have the capacity to—and do—run reality simulations as they sleep. What does that suggest about their interior lives more generally?

To get close to answering this question we have to think about the mind-boggling phenomenon that a dream is. A dream is almost a fantastical act whereby we, through a complex interaction of mind and body, create a world that we experience as real in the context of sleep. When we are completely disconnected from the empire of the senses, we somehow manage to produce a world-analogue by means of memory and imagination. We build our dreams from experiences that we have stored in long-term and short-term memory. And we often rely on imagination to combine these experiences in innovative, bizarre, and even illogical ways.

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What does this suggest about the interior lives of animals? Well, think about memory for a moment. Some scholars have argued that animals have no sense of past or future, that they live perpetually in the here-and-now. Others have claimed that imagination is restricted to Homo sapiens because it requires thinking about things that are not really there in the environment. For instance, when I imagine, say, a pink elephant, I mentally produce something that is not really there. This requires the present-ification of something that is absent or irreal. For a long time, it has been said that this kind of ‘transcending’ of one’s surroundings is simply impossible for non-humans.

But in When Animals Dream I talk about how memory and imagination are implicated in animal dreaming, which means that animals have memory and imagination. I also discuss other concepts related to animal dreaming that encourage us to see animals in a new light, especially consciousness, awareness, subjectivity—because I do think that, through dreams, we come to see animals as thinking, feeling, embodied subjects who play a role in the construction of their own reality.

As your book choices make clear, animal consciousness is an area of research that asks very big scientific and philosophical questions. Could we discuss your first book recommendation first? This is Kristin Andrews’ The Animal Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animal Cognition.

Kristin Andrews is a philosopher of mind who specialises in animals. In this book, she talks about certain concepts that we have used to police the boundary between us and other animals. And she uses developments in the fields of animal behaviour and cognition and the philosophy of mind to show that these concepts should be opened up to other species.

Her book is written like a philosophy textbook, as the subtitle indicates. So it’s a good resource for those who already have some basic knowledge about the philosophy of mind, but who haven’t thought very much about how the problems that galvanise this field shift when considered in relation to animals.

“How do we humans think about the minds of nonhumans?”

The book begins with a helpful historical overview of the problem of other minds. How do we humans think about the minds of nonhumans? After canvassing some of the answers that people have given to that question over the last couple of centuries, she discusses four main concepts that need to be re-thought in light of what we now know about animals: consciousness, thought, communication, and intentionality. What do we mean by consciousness and which animals have it? How do animals communicate, and is communication essentially different from language? What is the nature of thought, and do animals create internal representations of the external world (i.e. thoughts)? And finally, do animals understand the intentions of others, or even that others have intentions of their own?

The book gives readers a solid overview of ongoing debates in the philosophy of animal cognition that push at the boundaries that we have built to separate ourselves from our nonhuman cousins.

Absolutely, and in that I think it shares some ground with the second book you’ve chosen to recommend on the subject of animal consciousness: the Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret’s What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? This book is divided into 26 alphabetised sections.

There is some overlap around questions of animal cognition, but Despret’s book is broader in scope and less linear in its organisation. As you point out, this work is organised like one of those abecedaria that hang on the walls of elementary school classrooms. As such, the chapters are organised alphabetically by concept (“A is for Artists,” “B is for Beasts,” etc.).

This means that the reader can pick and choose which chapters to read and in what order to read them, which gives them a neat sense of agency, freedom, and playfulness. The book even has little icons scattered throughout the text—a pointing hand—that point readers to other entries at key moments. So if one entry relates to something ten chapters away, one can jump to that chapter, read it, and return to the original chapter. There’s a lot of cross-referencing internally. Stylistically, it is quite interesting.

Sounds fun. A bit like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Or Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing, which leaps around in the same way.

Yes. It also reminds me stylistically of Montaigne’s essays and Rochefoucauld’s aphorisms, which are shorter than a typical treatise and usually in a non-linear in their organisation.

Anyway, in Despret’s book, each chapter is a meditation on a topic. And the topics are very diverse: animals and art, animals and empathy, animals and politics, animals and sex, animals and research. And they are all very short—only about 5-10 pages each.

Just to give you one example of this, she has a chapter called ‘Q is for Queer: Are Penguins Coming Out of the Closet?’ that is less than 10 pages. In it, she talks about how animals are used as models of morality by liberals and conservatives alike—often for very different ends. Defenders of gay marriage will go on and on about so-called gay animals in the wild, while opponents will find animals that couple in ‘heterosexual’ units for life in an attempt to naturalise classical marriage. Despret takes no position about marriage. Rather, she takes a step back from the controversy to call into question the very idea that we can extract from nature a justification for human moral or political regimes.

So as you can see the book’s scope is huge, but there are two grand themes that intrigue me. She views animals as meaning makers—she’s interested in stories, anecdotes, protocols that show how animals produce meanings for themselves and those around them. She has a chapter on primates using knots to make hammocks in laboratories and in sanctuaries, a chapter on elephants who make art in Southeast Asia, and a chapter on animal companions and the bonds they develop with the humans they share their lives with. As you read, you start seeing animals not just as these passive objects that are the recipients of human power or human domination, but as active agents that also make choices and have something to contribute to a social interaction.

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The the second theme is the politics of the laboratory. For Despret, laboratories are ‘dispositives’ (a term she borrows from Michel Foucault). They are human creations that necessarily produce artificial effects. One of those effects is that they naturalise things that are in fact socially constructed. We think that behaviours displayed in the laboratory belong to the natural behavioural repertoire of a species, when often they may be unnatural effects of artificial living conditions.

She has a really interesting analysis of rat infanticide. Rats will kill their children when there is scarcity. This, we are told, is an innate behavioural tendency. But if this were true, why is infanticide never observed among rats in their natural habitats? It’s only in the laboratory that they regularly eat their young. Why would that be? Despret argues that it has to do with the artificial production of scarcity and competition between rats that humans produce in order to motivate the rats to participate in experiments. The laboratory isn’t a place of discovery; it is a place of creation.

Oh god.

And there are a lot of chapters that that bring to the foreground how animal behaviour is de-formed and de-natured in the laboratory. I think for Vinciane Despret, the conclusion is that we should strive to study animals in non-laboratory settings, or at least we should be more aware of how the image that we get of animals in these rigid, austere, artificial spaces is a kind of mirage.

Right. That’s quite a horrifying example, but as a whole that book is imbued with a certain sense of playfulness. Generally, this subject does lend itself to the comic or the absurd. I’m thinking of our next book in particular, Ed Yong’s An Immense World, which features a lot of very silly-sounding experiments, with seals in goggles, fish wearing jackets, and so on. Do you think that the farcical qualities of animal research distracts from the seriousness of the subject? Maybe I’m being a killjoy.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with being a killjoy. But the truth is a combination of the two—the farcical and the serious. Because when we thinking about human interactions with animals, they often range from the comic to the tragic. In laboratories, for example, there is a clear imbalance of power—that’s the tragic dimension. But it’s not as if we see a complete obliteration of the agency of other animals. I think animals are inventive enough to find ways to wiggle their way out of human control in certain cases, even if only for a moment. And those are moments of semi-comic relief. Think of all the reports of animals escaping from the lab or the zoo, while humans look for them frantically. There is a comic quality to these escapes, but a comic quality that occurs within a larger tragic setting: the tragedy of captivity. But, yes, there is the heavy element, and there are moments of levity, and I think every animal expert—whether they are scientific researchers, philosophers or anthropologists—is familiar with this duality.

Yes. That makes me think of those very funny accounts in Peter Godfrey Smith’s book Other Minds, where he writes about octopuses climbing out of their tanks, then quickly sliding back in again when the researcher comes back into the room. But maybe we should talk more about Yong’s book. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Atlantic, and this book’s subtitle is ‘how animals senses reveal the hidden realms around us.’ It’s delightful.

Ed Yong is a wonderful writer. He’s given us a very erudite and engaging book. There is just so much information in it about the sensory systems of other species and the radical diversity of modes of being that exist in nature.

This book is ultimately about the senses. For a long time, we’ve thought that there are only five senses—largely because we universalise from a very narrow slice of the world, which is the slice of human experience. So we equate the five dominant human senses with ‘the senses’ more generally. But of course, there are many other senses beyond those five, as well as senses that only other species have and for which we don’t have a human version.

Ed Yong wants us to attend to those other senses. That’s why the imagination, for him, is such an important methodological principle. It is through the imagination that we access the central philosophical concept he uses in the book, which is the concept of the ‘Umwelt’, a German term that just means ‘the lived world,’ the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.

It comes from the biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who describes the world of a particular animal as an circuit between the animal’s ‘receptor system’ (everything that the animal can sense and register from the external world—Do they see? Do they smell? Do they have sonar?) and the ‘effector system’ (all the things that the animal can do with that information—Can they fly? Can they spot a predator? Can they build a nest?). These two systems create the bubble that is the animal’s lived world.

“For a long time, we’ve thought that there are only five senses—largely because we universalise from a very narrow slice of the world”

Ed Yong makes two really interesting arguments that are already there in Uexküll, but I think Yong explains them clearly. One is that the Umwelt of every animal is unique, based on species membership and maybe even varying from animal to animal. The other is that animals can’t step out of their Umwelt. We cannot stop seeing the world through a human lens any more than a wolf can step outside of his or her canine perception of the world.

But how then can we, humans, think about the worlds of other animals when we cannot step out of our own? I think Yong believes that we can enter the bubble of another animal to some extent. At the very least, we can notice what other bubbles are out there, what possible shapes they might have, what possible colours they might display. The book taps into the element of wonder, examining these hidden realms that are perhaps not hidden at all. They may be right next to us.

I really love that book. Let’s talk about Marc Bekoff’s The Emotional Life of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow and Empathy, and Why They Matter. It’s based on Bekoff’s years studying social communication in a wide range of species. Why do you recommend this book, and what does it tell us about animal consciousness?

Partly because it’s very accessible, but partly because Bekoff is good at highlighting aspects of emotions that we often miss. For instance, he begins his book by talking about the fact that we tend to think of emotions as things that happen inside us, you know, maybe in the head, maybe in the heart, maybe in the gut, depending on where you localise them. But he says that this is exactly the wrong way to think about emotions. Emotions are not private, internal affairs; if anything, they are painfully public events. When I experience an emotion, I cannot but smile, I cannot but frown, I cannot but cringe. I become red with anger. Or I look like I have just seen a ghost. This public-ness suggests that emotions are not are not just for us, although they might be about us. They are ways of communicating. They’re fundamentally social.

He also explains that many emotions are complex. Psychologists often differentiate between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ emotions. Primary emotions are innate and hardwired—maybe like the flight or fight response. But there are other emotions that cannot be the product of hardwiring. These are the secondary emotions. They’re learned, they’re flexible, they’re psychological. The animal reflects on what to do based on the emotion.

In this book, Bekoff focuses on these secondary emotions. He talks a lot about the positive ones: laughter, joy, the love bond between animals. He also discusses play, which takes a central role in his analysis. But he goes into less positive as well. For example, do animals seek revenge? Well, there are cases of rivalries between bird siblings where the animals become vengeful towards one another in competing for the attention of a parent. Similarly, when hyenas become outcasts in their own community, they try to get revenge on those who threw them out of the cackle.

Perhaps we might imagine a real-life Lion King.

Yes, perhaps! And one of the emotions on display in The Lion King is grief. Simba grieves the death of his father, Mufasa. And then the pack grieves the disappearance of Simba, who in turn also grieves the loss of his homeland when he has to leave in secret. Bekoff doesn’t talk about the movie, of course, but he does think that animals grieve the loss of their loved ones.

This is a difficult topic because grief arguably requires a concept of death. Do animals have this? The tide, I believe, is moving toward an affirmative answer. Not all animals, but definitely some. Non-human primates suffer terribly in the wake of the death of a family member. They become bereaved. Foxes and elephant perform what we might as well call ‘burials’—where the animals approach the dead body of a conspecific, especially a friend or family member, and treat it in bizarre ways. They cover it with objects and protect it from others. This contradicts a longstanding theory in anthropology that holds that animals would have evolved a natural aversion to dead bodies for evolutionary reasons—because they are carriers of disease—and that only humans break this pattern through our cultural traditions around death.

But one of the conclusions Bekoff wants us to get to in this book is that animal behaviour is not only about survival. It is also about connecting, bonding, and socialising. There have been many cases recorded by lay people—and also scientists—of animals helping an injured conspecific, which from a survival perspective is not easy to understand. These are also discussions of other social behaviours that you can only make sense of in light of secondary emotions—like friendship or collective celebrations. So the book foregrounds the emotional lives of animals, which are public and complex.

I think we should tackle the issue of anthropomorphism. Some readers might be leery of ascribing emotional capacities to animals on the basis that we are assuming that they think as we do.

Definitely. Anthropomorphism is a bad word in the sciences. There is nothing that is more likely to put someone out of joint with the scientific community than an accusation of anthropomorphism, which is the projection of human powers or capacities onto nonhuman animals.

I see two problems with our excessive fear of anthropomorphism. Firstly, those who panic about anthropomorphism often begin from an impoverished understanding of other animals and an inflated sense of the position humans occupy in the order of nature. If you begin from the belief that only humans have a sense of past and present, that only humans have complex emotions, that only humans can think of what others desire, then even the slightest suggestion that cuts against the grain of this belief will strike you as outrageously anthropomorphic. But where is the outrageousness, in the new suggestion or in the original belief?

Secondly, fears of anthropomorphism—which can sometimes be a real danger, I don’t deny that—can hinder scientific research by preventing scientists from seeing parallels that are there. That’s something we have known for a long time: in the animal sciences, whenever there are new developments or new theories that push a boundary, the first instinct is to dismiss those developments and theories as anthropomorphic. But often there’s a shift and the supposedly ridiculous proposition gets incorporated into the body of science.

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For example, what happened when Jane Goodall proposed that chimpanzees have personalities? She was persona non grata in anthropology. Now she is one of the most respected scientists in the world.  The same thing happened to Jaak Panksepp, who discovered rat laughter. He was blacklisted from scientific circles. People said he had lost his way as a scientist. Now, he is remembered as a pioneer of affective animal neuroscience. And these are only two examples. There are many others.

So there are conceptual and practical problems with this cultural panic about anthropomorphism. But none of this is to deny that we need to be careful. It is simply to say that new ideas cannot be turned away simply because we want to believe that we possess some special quality that will be devalued if extended to other living beings.

That makes sense. And I think a lot of people who work with animals do intuit that the simplest explanation for much of the behaviour they encounter is that the animals have personalities, emotions, interiority. But I suppose backing these assumptions with evidence is where it gets complicated. Let’s move on to your final book recommendation on animal consciousness, which is John Berger’s essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’. It’s available as a standalone mini-book from Penguin. It has a wonderful line in it, quite early on:

The animal scrutinises him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension. This is why the man can surprise the animal. Yet the animal—even if domesticated—can also surprise the man.

Why should we read Berger now?

Berger is an unlikely candidate for inclusion in this list. He’s an art historian and a cultural critic—and a Marxist. He became famous in the 1970s for his BBC documentary series called Ways of Seeing, where he taught viewers how to think about images: photographs, paintings, television, et cetera. So he’s not a scientist or an expert on animals. But in 1980 he wrote ‘Why look at animals?’, in which he traced the evolution of the way in which we see animals as a culture. This is where animal studies and art interpretation meet. Although I don’t agree 100% with his account of the evolution of our relationship with animals, it’s a fascinating account that I think is worth looking at. And it’s powerfully written.

According to Berger, there was a shift in the late 19th century in the way in which humans saw and interpreted non-human animals. Before the 19th century, our relationship to animals was a combination of proximity and sacrifice. We were closer to other animals in nature, but we also killed them for food—and the killing was direct. We killed them with our hands and with somewhat rudimentary tools. We were close to them—and their deaths.

This mix of proximity and sacrifice produced an interesting kind of existential relationship : we loved animals, we respected their differences, and we respected the gravity of the act of killing them. For Berger, people before the 19th century understood the “abyss of non-comprehension” that separates us, but also understood that humans and animals look at one another across this abyss. We see them, and they see us.

Everything changes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Industrial Revolution brings about “the reduction of the animal.” Slowly, over a period of a few decades, animals start to be removed from our lives. Horses and donkeys are replaced by automobiles. The slaughter of animals gets outsourced to factories and is carried out in secret, away from us. Disney comes on the scene, pushing caricatures animals, which are really human characters dressed up as animals. Zoos become more common and turn animals into objects of the human gaze.

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Berger’s point is that we see animals, but we no longer feel seen by them. It’s a one-way street. In fact, we don’t even really see animals—not really. We look at them but don’t see them. We see teddy bears made of flesh, integrated slices of meat, cartoons that have momentarily escaped the screen. We stopped seeing animals as creatures who look back. For me, this capacity to ‘look back’ is tied to being sentient, being conscious, being social, and being interested. That’s why this essay—though it is partly about art and visual culture—is fundamentally about the problem of other minds. That’s how I read it.

That brings us to my final question: the philosopher Thomas Nagel once argued that it was impossible to understand what it was to ‘be’ a bat. Here, I think, he’s gesturing towards the problem of transcending our own Umwelt, as we discussed earlier. But what can we gain from the attempt to understand the mind of a bat, and indeed other animals?

Let me begin by saying that I think that Nagel has been misunderstood to an extent. He does say that we will never know what it’s like to be a bat from a first-person standpoint, and that sounds right to me. It would be violent to assume that I can capture the world of another animal just by imagining that I am that animal. There’s an element of conceit there, a presumptuousness rooted in a kind of cosmic vanity whereby we convince ourselves that we are the animal who can contain all other animals within the bounds of its own mind. So in terms of knowing what it’s like to ‘be another animal’, there is a real limit. I discuss this in more detail in an episode of my podcast Overthink.

But in that famous essay, towards the end, Nagel talks about the possibility of an objective rather than subjective phenomenology, and he leaves that door open for that. He says, look, we will never know what it’s like to be a bat, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot learn things about the structure of bat experience. After all, we have discovered that bats have sonar, which we do not have. So there’s an indirect access we can have that allows us to think about the properties of the Umwelten of other animals. I, for one, choose to focus not on the door that Nagel closes, which was never open to begin with, but on the door that he leaves open. That’s the door I want to cross in my own work.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

October 5, 2022

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David Peña-Guzmán

David Peña-Guzmán

David M. Peña-Guzmán is associate professor of humanities at San Francisco State University. He specialises in animal studies, theories of consciousness, the history and philosophy of science, and contemporary European philosophy. He is coauthor of Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosophers’ Brief and cohost of the popular Overthink podcast.