Are other animals conscious?

16 March 2018
Presented by Chris Smith.


Brain schematic


Can we treat eczema? Why can sour things seem to taste bitter before you even eat them? Do testosterone levels spike in women after sex? Why didn't any other primates evolve high-intelligence? What is the difference between consciousness and intelligence? Plus, a farewell to Stephen Hawking...

Eusebius - So give us a call right now if you want to put a question to Chris for the next 30 minutes. Good morning Chris. Hey good morning. Always sad when someone has passed on who has done amazing things in the world Chris. But at the same time Stephen Hawking had lived a remarkable life in so many ways not just as a scientist but in all sorts of other respects as well and I think it's wonderful that we should start the show first and foremost by paying a tribute to him.

Chris - Yeah we absolutely should. And the reason that a lot of the science that is in common parlance including on this program things like black holes how the universe is changing and expanding and where the universe came from the reason part of the reason that it's so popular and that people understand the amount that we do even though there is a huge amount still to understand is because of the efforts of Stephen Hawking because right from the very early stage when he did his PhD on how black holes worked. This was really cutting edge stuff. People just weren't able to grapple with this and he did. And he turned into something tractable and tangible; something that mere mortals like the rest of us could understand and have some insight into things which are enormously complicated. It's very very difficult to be good at popularising science. It's even more difficult to be very good at science and also very good at popularising it. And it's very rare to find somebody who can do both of those things with such aplomb. So it is a massive loss. But, on the other hand, Stephen Hawking - despite battling motor neurone disease, which was some kind of very atypical form of motor neurone disease because most people who get this sort of condition that he suffered with get it when they're in their 60s and 70s and then they survive maybe a few years - he succumbed to this when he was in his 20s and then survived his entire life with it but actually had a very rich life despite this, and perhaps because of it; because many people are saying that it gave him certain things which he wouldn't have had insights into and a certain energy and drive and a motivation which he might not have had in the same way if he hadn't felt that his time perpetually was running out because he has said that you know, right back in the early days I have to get on and do this because if I don't I might not be here to realise what I think Im capable of realising. So it was a bit of a poisoned chalice, but a wonderful person and someone I've had the privilege actually to live in the same city as! I haven't met Stephen Hawking apart from to pass him in the street occasionally, but it is a really sad week; on the other hand, we should be celebrating as well because you know wonderful people who give us wonderful things and make the world wonderful around us.

Eusebius - And he was certainly one of them absolutely. I remember passing him on in the covered market in Oxford myself oh my God there's that famous person. He sort of lose it for a couple of seconds. What he said when he saw you. When he was diagnosed Chris. I think he was told that he had a couple of years to live it most do we understand from a science point of view why he bucked that prediction.

Chris - He had some form of motor neurone disease. What this means is that the cells which are in your spinal cord that connect to your muscles and send messages from the spinal cord to muscles telling them to move they die. There are also cells in the brain that control how the body moves and they connect to those cells down in the spinal cord to make them tell the muscles to move. They also die. There are a range of reasons why this can happen their inherited forms of this condition. There are also some what we call idiopathic forms most of them are where people just develop this condition and we haven't yet worked out exactly why we think it's something to do with cells experiencing stress. So when a cell is placed under load metabolic load if it's not well set up to cope with that then it starts to make various chemicals that damage the cell and in people who have motor neurone disease this seems to lead to the death of their motor neurons. And this robs them of the ability to move they have no voluntary movement. That's what happens. Stephen Hawking, we don't understand why it happened so early in him and how he managed to stay well for so long. He probably did stay so well for so long because he got it early and had very good coping mechanisms, was very well looked after because the standard of care he received was excellent, and he's never been short of saying thank you to the NHS in England, which was enormous staunch supporter of, which I think helped him a lot as well. But, also, I think he had ferocious determination; and that cannot be understated how important that is as well the will to get on and do things and not let anything hold you back.

Eusebius - George, good morning to you; what is your question?

George - Hi yes yes thank you for the opportunity. I want to ask: my son suffers from extreme eczema and you know all the specialists that we go to, apart from the cortisone, are obviously not frequently used in Egypt. I'm sure there should be some cutting edge technology or research or understanding of the condition that would make their life a little bit better.

Chris - I'm really sorry to hear about the situation, and you have my sympathy because my own daughter gets a bit of eczema and I know it's a miserable thing. The proper name for it is "dermatitis" - an acute dermatitis - which can become a chronic dermatitis: "derm" as in skin, "-itis" as in inflammation. Our understanding of this is it's some kind of allergic response. What we think happens is that the skin which is normally a barrier to allergens and other irritants getting through the skin breaks down.

So if you have a small injury to the skin or you allow things through that barrier which are irritants they wind up the skin they attract the immune system and they also because of the breach in the skin's defences allow things in your allergic to this then further winds up the immune system and the immune system then damages the skin a bit more and it becomes a vicious cycle where the irritated damaged skin allows more allergen to come in and the allergen then inflames the skin more which encourages the skin to be damaged more.

One of the mainstays of treatment therefore is to prevent the breakdown in the protective barrier of the skin and this is where these emollient creams come in dermatologists are very fond of saying put on these emollience these oily creams which acts as a nice thick smooth layer over the surface of the skin they push moisture into the skin and they stop it breaking down in the first place. And this is actually very important for maintaining the defensive barrier of the skin in stopping the allergens getting in the other second line thing that we do is to then try to manipulate the immune system a bit because dermatitis eczema is an immune response.

Therefore, if you damp down the immune system not chronically necessarily but certainly enough to stop it causing damage to the skin wherever there's an inflamed patch of skin then you can gain control of the disease and then the inflammation goes away the skin forms a new intact barrier and then as long as you keep that intact it should keep the eczema at bay.

Some people get very very severe eczema though and I'm very very sorry for them and probably there's something that they're very exquisitely sensitive to or their immune system is in overdrive for some reason and in these people it can be very very hard to control and even stronger forms of immunosuppression are sometimes needed. But we try to do the least we can to get the maximum control over the disease because all interventions have side effects and we want to maximise the benefits and minimise the side effects because disabling your immune system it's there for a reason and if we dismantle the immune system we make a person at risk of other problems. So we want to do the least of that and maximise the benefit with the disease and that's where these emollient creams are so good because they're very cheap very easy to use very safe very few side effects but they have very good therapeutic value...

Eusebius - John, good morning! You've got a nice question for us...

John - Good morning Chris. Chris I was wondering what he was wanting to leave the European Union all that much and you want to know what it was like. But I was wondering what breaks and breaks it breaks on the news media do you think that people do more to exit the European Union.

Eusebius - Good question. It's more psychology than the hard sciences.

Chris - This is certainly an interesting question. Does the wording make a difference? There have been a number of debates about this, because people are saying that the way that the vote was put to the British public may also have skewed things. Should Britain leave the European Union. Yes or no. And of course there's more to it than just whether or not you leave the union there's all the other repercussions and implications that people are now discovering. So I suspect that actually there is a huge amount to this psychology. And it's interesting that you've highlighted this in the word exit. Probably it's quite an active word. It sort of says escape it sort of says salvation. And we know that when you plant a seed of a germ of an idea psychologically using a certain word in someone's mind you do then get these ramifications and knock on effects it stimulates all of the other connective thought processes in a person's mind. So yes there is a possibility that the wording has influence people but then that's not new. Politicians have been doing that for absolutely years haven't they.

Eusebius - Of course that's true. Let's go to Twitter and here's a similar kind of question, but this is a biological version of it. Somebody wants to know, Chris, why is it when you're about to eat something that is safe, for example very sour, before you even put it in your mouth you already get the tingling sensation?

Chris - Well it's anticipation! You have learned that a certain flavour or a certain foodstuff produces a certain reaction in your mouth. So you brace yourself for it. It's a bit like when a doctor comes to you with a needle if you've had an injection in the past you know well this is going to hurt maybe a little tiny bit and you will notice people they will in voluntarily brace they wince. They screw their eyes up they look away because they know that it might be something that's going to be unpleasant. Now if you do this the first time to a newborn baby or a young child they're really interested in what the doctors doing and they are perfectly happy to cooperate until they go Oh that feels a bit uncomfortable and then the next time they're not so easily convinced. So it's the same with food and we're really really sensitive to what we put in our mouths because obviously you could put the wrong thing in your mouth and it could have fatal consequences.

And so we learn very rapidly to associate smells and taste with certain outcomes. And I suspect that's what's going on you pick up that piece of lime and you think yeah I know I quite like this but I also know it's going to be extremely extremely tart so I'm going to wince as I bite into it.

Eusebius - Candice, welcome to the show. Thank you for your patience. What's your question?

Candice - Hi. I just wanted to find out, during sexual intercourse, when a male ejaculates into a female, does her testosterone levels increase?

Chris - Interesting one! The answer is yes, it does. Women do have testosterone. It's not just men that have testosterone. Women make testosterone. They also make androgenic hormones a bit like testosterone but the levels in women are lower than they are in a man. And yes men's fluids do contain hormones. They contain some testosterone they also contain prostate gland ins and other things and these have effects on the woman's body because they encourage muscle contraction for example which is what encourages the sperm to move up inside the woman and find the egg so it can fertilized equally it's not a one way street. It's a two way street because oestrogen from the Women's bits get onto the men's bits. And so men also pick up a bit of oestrogen from close contact with their partner and they've also been cases actually there have been some case reports of people who wear these patches cause you can have for instance a testosterone patch if you're a man you have low testosterone levels you can have a testosterone patch and I did read one case report where a couple snuggled up in bed for extended period of time over a number of days and weeks. And the man was wearing a testosterone patch. He was snuggling up close to the lady and some of the testosterone was going out of the patch and into the lady um pushing up her levels because she began to get some some androgenic effects like a bit of bit of hair growth and and her voice went really deep. I don't know that's a bit apocryphal but the answer to the question is yes there is an exchange not just a body fluids but of hormones and other signals too. Interesting question.

Eusebius - Jason go ahead. What would you like to have answered?

Jason - I've got a question on evolution. I don't know that you mentioned humans found it beneficial to all levels of emotional intelligence. Yes. Why did other primates not find that beneficial. Why are we the only ones with high levels of emotional intelligence while they go on a low level.

Eusebius - An interesting assumption being made there. I wonder what Chris is going to say...

Chris - Well, first of all remember that we evolved from a common ancestor with the apes which are around today so there are chimpanzees and bonobos and about 16 million years ago so they had an ancestor that they shared with us. So you can imagine this is like the root and coming off of there is this radiation like from from your wrist into your hand in the fingers going out you've got on one finger that's us. Then you've got another fingers as chimps and bonobos. But remember there was a whole tapestry of early human ancestors out there around at the same time so there were the ones that South Africa is very famous for things like australopithecines remains of which have been found early and other forms of homo which were around at that time so there were lots of different experiments being done by nature. Many of these individuals would have had all kinds of quite developed intelligences others wouldn't. So nature was doing just a giant experiment and chimpanzees very successful bonobos very successful orangs very successful as long as humans don't come along and mess up their environment. Humans very successful but to be successful you dont just judge success by emotional intelligence and whether or not you can work an iPad. You judge intelligence by whether or not you can thrive. You can take over an environment be successful live healthily and reproduce and pass your genes onto the next generation. So many people would say these animals have been around for millions of years or at least evolving for millions of years thats pretty good theres a pretty good success story and there are other animals that also have emotional intelligence too like elephants and dolphins we know that they're pretty insightful and even your dog your dog knows what youre thinking and changes its behavior according to your mood. Weve got evidence that proves that. And the same is true the owner response to the dog in the same way. So it's not just us that have this privileged position.

Eusebius - Yeah I want to ask a small little follow up question if I may from the peanut gallery Chris I was going to ask you exactly. Isn't there surely a difference between consciousness and emotional intelligence and many other animals in the animal kingdom who are not human do have emotional intelligence. What is unique about us. And please tell me if this is actually itself factually wrong. Is of course that we can behave deliberately reflectively that capacity.

Chris - Well people used to think that it was just humans that had the ability to put themselves into another individual shoes but then they began to do experiments that suggested that in fact other animals can recognize their own reflection which means that they understand what they look like and they understand themselves to be distinct from others and they can plan ahead. One very nice example of this not just in the mammalian lineage but in the birds. Nicky Clayton, who is a researcher at the University of Cambridge, has done amazing studies with rooks and jays - so these are members of the crow, or corvid family. These animals planned for the future, and what she's able to show with these crows is that if you feed them some food they steal off each other. They also watch each other and they hide food. And what she was able to show is that they go and hide food and if another bird is watching them they pretend to hide the food in one place and then really hide it in another. Or, they hide the food in one place and if they know they were being watched when they hid it, they go back later, dig it up, and move it when no one's watching them, because they therefore realise that "if I'm being watched I might have my food stolen". That is quite high level thinking, because it shows that they're actually working out what someone else might do in their position with the knowledge they have. And that's a number of steps forward on the chess game; we used to think that that ability was uniquely human...


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