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Zenith Grant Awardee

Moshe Shay Ben-Haim

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Ran R. Hassin  , The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Project Title

Consciousness Without Language: Exploration in Non-Verbal Species and Human Babies

Project Summary

We tackle one of the last mysteries of science: Consciousness. The main obstacle facing a robust science of consciousness is simple: the major – and some will argue, the only – way to learn about others’ conscious experiences is simply by asking them. Alas, non-verbal species, by definition, cannot report their internal states. Young infants cannot report them either; they don’t have language. Thus, the issue of animal and baby consciousness have long been considered outside the scope of science. We propose a completely new way of bypassing this obstacle by harnessing double dissociations between non-conscious and conscious processing— cases in which conscious and non-conscious perception lead to opposite behaviors. These allow us to safely infer the existence of two modes of processing: one that is associated with consciousness, and one that is not. We can also test the limitations and advantages of these modes of processing. We begin by testing a distant relative – the archer fish (Toxotes chatareus), and the inaccessible minds of our own babies. If successful, this project will not only bring the science of consciousness to nonverbal animals, it will also provide a robust, consistent methodology to look at the ontogenesis and phylogenesis of the conscious mind.

Technical Abstract

The proposed project promises important advances on two scientific enigmas. First, what are the functions of consciousness and those of non-conscious processing. Second, whether animals and languageless humans (i.e., babies) have consciousness and non-conscious processing. The main tool for verifying awareness is verbal reports, we simply ask. Yet in non-verbal species we simply have no unequivocal scientific tests for consciousness and/or non-conscious processing and their consciousness is often still considered unattainable mystery. Here, we develop a completely novel approach that bypasses this limitation: We harness well-established double dissociations in adult humans — cases in which conscious and non-conscious perception lead to opposite behavioral signatures. These double dissociations can provide unambiguous data for two modes of processing in nonverbal animals. One mode is associated with consciousness and the other is not. We developed and begun testing our approach in monkeys (Ben-Haim et.al., Submitted). Here we propose a structured, well-grounded project that will begin testing the ontogenesis and phylogenesis of consciousness: Testing the development of these systems in (a) our own species’ pre-verbal babies, and (b) an evolutionary distant intelligent non-mammal, the archer fish. This approach opens the door to testing empirically millennia old questions previously considered outside of scientific reach.

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