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Dernière mise à jour : Mai 2018

Menu Logo Principal AgroParisTech Université Paris-Saclay


GABI : Génétique Animale et Biologie IntégrativeUnité Mixte de Recherche INRA - AgroParisTech

New knowledge on animal awareness

New knowledge on animal awareness
© Inra
Do animals have emotions? Do they have a life history? Following a request made by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the INRA organised a collective scientific assessment on animal awareness. The results were presented to representatives of European member countries belonging to the animal welfare network, the EFSA and the European Commission on 11 and 12 May, 2017 in Parme, Italy.

Animal awareness has been a research subject in philosophy since Antiquity, before becoming a question for naturalists living in the XIXth century, then ethologists and comparative psychologists. Already these old studies had a tendance to be in favor of the existence of animal awareness. Biology and phsychology then permitted conceptual advancements to be made, that established animal awareness as the result of a brain process.

A subject at the intersection of numerous fields 

When confronted with cognitive tests, animals express behavior showing their capacity to have emotions, to recognize limits of their knowledge, but also to manage their past and future. The study of social behavior in animals and the relation between man and animals has provided additional knowledge on animal awareness through the demonstration of forms of animal awareness at different degrees that are sometimes important and complex. Awareness could be described as the product that emerges from the interaction of different functional layers of skill such as perception, mobilizing attention, memorizing, showing emotion and evaluating a situation.

Neurobiological research studies in particular the link between behavior and a substrate or a neuron circuit. The biological structures allowing these cognitive skills are associated with a central core that manages regulations implicated in biological rythms or vigilance and which allow the emergence of awareness. The perception of a stimulus activates several of these structures that will interact to produce interpretations and intentions and which will be materialized by conscient actions. These conscious actions are more complex than if there was only one simple juxtaposition of the reactions of the different structures.

Depending on their species, animals show various apititudes in terms of awareness. Cognitive aptitudes leading to awareness could be the result of phylogenetic processes. They could also result from convergent evolution in species that are not phylogenetically associated and therefore with different neuron resources but facing similar environmental constraints.  A formal demonstration of these hypotheses is, however, still missing.

Animal pain and sensitivity

We may confirm that vertebrates are more or less equipped with a nervous system that consciously treats complex information processes and in particular, negative emotions caused by stimuli responsible for pain, called nociceptive.

Even though sensitivity (the capacity to feel suffering or pain) may be present in animals, more elaborate contents were only inferred in a small number of species including primates, corvids, rodents and ruminants. Ruminants have an autobiographical or episodical memory and can therefore have desires and objectives that concern the past or the future. They may be even more affected by aversive experiences.

Research needs

This multidisciplinary expertise allowed the identification of new needs in research. In particular, it is necessary to enlarge current research to a greater number of animal species, to create experimental methods that will make it easier to distinguish between conscious behavior and automatic acquired behavior and to gain knowledge of the mental universe of farm animals. The study on the development of forms of awareness in young animals is important for farm animals that often have a short life. The way animals see the world and evaluate their environment could give us ideas on how to improve their welfare and how they are treated. In domestic species, the nature of animal relations with the humans that raise them should also be studied. 

See also