For this edition of my neuroscience podcast series, I chat with David Edelman, who is a professor of neuroscience at Bennington College. David is well known for his work in establishing a theoretical framework for the study of consciousness in animals. He is interested in understanding the neural correlates of consciousness in animals, and whether they even have a form of consciousness that can be studied experimentally. His current work focuses on octopuses, which might seem strange, but in fact octopuses show a wide range of very interesting behaviors, including exploration and learning and memory. They also have a very sophisticated nervous system for an invertebrate, including a relatively large brain as well as a parallel and distributed nervous system. In fact, they actually have more neurons in their tentacles than in their central nervous system, which allows for a huge range of adaptive behaviors, including camouflage and mimicry, all of which suggests a certain type of awareness of their environment.
In this podcast, we’ll discuss the idea of using humans as a benchmark for consciousness, and then trying to demonstrate similar behavioral, cognitive, and neuroanatomical features of animals that might be related to a conscious state. In addition to octopuses, birds also show a number of behavioral and neural features that are very intriguing, including tool use and social learning. I’ll ask David about these features of the bird brain, as well as whether birds and octopuses are capable of “deliberative” actions and have a true awareness of their environments. We’ll end our discussion with a note on what types of experiments David is doing to establish the case that octopuses are indeed conscious, and how much farther we still need to go.
You can listen to and download the podcast here.