Despite being known to carry out their tasks with the precision of a machine, insects appear to be capable of subjective experience, which means that they are aware of what they are doing and are more than just some mindless drones.

In a study featured in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers Colin Klein and Andrew B. Barron from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) point out that insects have a basic sense of consciousness, something that they have always been able to do ever since they first walked the Earth.

While this degree of consciousness doesn't allow insects to experience deeper thoughts, such as why an individual bee is not the queen of their colony, or whether they like the taste of nectar, the researchers said that they are very much capable of feeling something.

The UCSB paper is the first of its kind to discuss the anatomical and structural basis for insects' ability to have subjective experience. It stops short, however, of establishing any potential form of anthropomorphism in the creatures by focusing only on the typical behavior seen in modern insects. It also examines the form of some of the oldest insects on Earth.

Klein and Barron identified characteristics in ancient and present day insects that had functioned similarly to the midbrain of humans when it comes to subjective experience.

One important aspect of subjective experience is the ability of beings to orient themselves about their surroundings and to properly navigate themselves through certain environments. This can be seen when insects successfully make their way back to their nest despite having to go through an environment that is relatively unknown to them.

With insects sharing basically the same brain structures, Klein and Barron suggest that part of their brain responsible for subjective experience is present in all species of insects including their ancient counterparts.

The UCSB study, however, does not try to establish that insects have the same level of consciousness as humans do. Barron pointed out that their paper was meant to provide a hypothesis instead of offering a conclusion.

"We put it forward because we think we should have this debate," Barron said.

Photo: Bob Peterson | Flickr 

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