The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

We have decided to publish, in it’s entirety, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (“CDC'“).

What is this declaration and what does it mean? This was a document signed in 2012 by “an international group of prominent scientists, led by computational neuroscientist and neurophysiologist Dr. Philip Low, . . . . . in which they are outlining convergent evidence indicating that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors, and consequently discarding the notion that humans are unique in possessing the neurological substrates of consciousness. Stephen Hawking was the guest of honor at the signing ceremony”.1

The CDC, in essence, rejects the view of French philosopher René Descartes (1596 - 1650) in which he, “maintained that animals cannot reason and do not feel pain; animals are living organic creatures, but they are automata, like mechanical robots. Descartes held that only humans are conscious, have minds and souls, can learn and have language and therefore only humans are deserving of compassion.”2

Reading Descarte’s views on animals may come as a surprise to many. Anyone who has ever interacted with nonhuman animals knows they are conscious, they do feel pain and have emotions - this observational evidence is easily and quickly discernible. Nonetheless, Descartes’ views heavily influenced humanities perspective of non-human animals including within the scientific and legal communities for centuries. It is fair to say that this view of non-human animals pre-existed Descartes, it was those ancient philosophers who provided Descartes with the foundation he needed.

As such, Steven Wise, an Amercian legal scholar and head of the NonHuman Rights Project, once said, “For four thousand years, a thick and impenetrable legal wall has separated all human from all nonhuman animals. On one side, even the most trivial interests of a single species — ours — are jealously guarded. We have assigned ourselves, alone among the million animal species, the status of "legal persons." On the other side of that wall lies the legal refuse of an entire kingdom, not just chimpanzees and bonobos but also gorillas, orangutans, and monkeys, dogs, elephants, and dolphins. They are "legal things." Their most basic and fundamental interests — their pains, their lives, their freedoms — are intentionally ignored, often maliciously trampled, and routinely abused.”

This is why the CDC is such an important moment in science and for nonhuman animals. It is a formal rebuke of centuries of collective cognitive dissonance among the sciences and moral philosophy. Disciplines, ironically, in which one might consider cognitive dissonance antithetical to the intellectual rigours and disciplines of reason and logic required by these otherwise noble human pursuits.

But what also caught our eye upon reading the CDC, is the following sentence: “Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness.”

Please read the declaration. We also provide a link to download the declaration as a PDF.


The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness

On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observations can be stated unequivocally:

  • The field of Consciousness research is rapidly evolving. Abundant new techniques and strategies for human and non-human animal research have been developed. Consequently, more data is becoming readily available, and this calls for a periodic reevaluation of previously held preconceptions in this field. Studies of non-human animals have shown that homologous brain circuits correlated with conscious experience and perception can be selectively facilitated and disrupted to assess whether they are in fact necessary for those experiences. Moreover, in humans, new non-invasive techniques are readily available to survey the correlates of consciousness.

  • The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these system in humans can also generate similar affective states. Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and nonhuman animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus).

  • Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated in zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex. Magpies in particular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition.

  • In humans, the effect of certain hallucinogens appears to be associated with a disruption in cortical feedforward and feedback processing. Pharmacological interventions in nonhuman animals with compounds known to affect conscious behavior in humans can lead to similar perturbations in behavior in non-human animals. In humans, there is evidence to suggest that awareness is correlated with cortical activity, which does not exclude possible contributions by subcortical or early cortical processing, as in visual awareness. Evidence that human and nonhuman animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks provide compelling evidence for evolutionarily shared primal affective qualia.

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

* The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch. The Declaration was publicly proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, by Low, Edelman and Koch. The Declaration was signed by the conference participants that very evening, in the presence of Stephen Hawking, in the Balfour Room at the Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, UK. The signing ceremony was memorialized by CBS 60 Minutes.

Download: The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.pdf





Nigel Osborne is the Executive Dir. of Egg-Truth. Nigel has years of experience related to animal rights and on-line advocacy. Nigel's extensive background in the publishing, outdoor advertising, printing and web design industries over the last 25 years provides him with a strong, creative acumen and business management experience. Through and it's social media channels, Nigel seeks to increase awareness among the public about global egg production and expose the conditions for the billions of hens condemned to laying every year.