How can we test for sentience/cognition in animals?

Is it possible to design a simple test for animals that would determine whether they are actually ‘thinking’ (as opposed to mechanistically performing actions based on stimuli, like version of Searle’s Chinese Room)?

I’m particularly thinking about applying it to birds of the parrot family…

Vast oversimplification ahead:
Suppose I have three stackable shapes, a triangle, a square and a circle;
I stack the triangle on the circle and say “KaaaTooo” (repeatedly)
I stack the triangle on the square and say “KaaaMeee”
I do this until the bird mimics the correct sound in response to these two configurations of shapes.

Now I stack the circle on the square; if the bird responded with “ToooMeee”, would that signify anything at all?

If you want a test for sentience, just stick them in front of a mirror. If they’re not sentient they’ll think the image in the mirror is another animal, if they are then they’ll recognise that the image is actually themselves. I believe the more intelligent apes recognise themselves in mirrors and so could be said to be sentient. Other animals don’t recognise themselves.

If you want a test for “thinking” then first you’d have to define what you’d consider “thinking”. Is it intelligence? Sentience? Creativity?

Its difficult because a parrot clearly can be thought of in a Chinese room context. All thats happening basically is stimulus is impinging on sensory apparatus, which leads to electrical and chemical impulses down nerve cells to the brain, where there is further chemical and electrical activity, which eventually leads to more electrical impulses down to various mucles which contract. All thats happening is “mechanistically performing actions based on stimuli” and the same can be said for humans.

OK, and how will I know that the parrot is recognising itself in the mirror? (I know they sometimes try to interact with mirrors, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they consider the image to be another parrot, because they also interact in very similar ways with all kinds of other objects)

I’m specifically looking for the ability to make logical deductions; responding to familiar stimuli in the correct way is one thing, responding in an appropriate, reasoned way to novel stimuli is quite another.

I recall a BBC program “Bird Brain of Britain” some years ago in which bird tables were laden with devices requiring some deductive operation on the part of the bird to get the nut etc, such as removal of matchsticks in a specific order. One species of bird (tits? snicker) was remarkably adept at figuring out the devices and remembering for later. However, there was always some element of trial and error and so this is probably not quite what Mange has in mind.

If I might point out that throughout this discussion one should ask how one might also “test the sentience” of a human (especially a child, toddler or baby). I don’t believe that anyone would seriously suggest that a 6 month old baby was in any way more sentient than an adult chimpanzee.

When you formulate abstract thoughts (I use abstract in a broad sense, I just mean more complex thoughts that insticntive ones such as being hungry), you do so using words and numbers mostly. Animals can’t do this to anything remotely approaching the level that we can.

You could use numeracy and language as a benchmark of sentience.

Well it depends on how parrots normally react to the sight of another parrot. If you see the parrot acting like it normally does when it sees another parrot then you could deduce that it isn’t sentient. If it starts interacting with itself, or preening or something similar while looking at the mirror then you could maybe deduce that it is sentient. If it just responds to the mirror like any other object then i guess you can’t come to any conclusions at all, as it doesn’t even recognise the image as a parrot.

I remember doing this to our dog when i was quite young, and she was very wary of the “other” dog, and kept on trying to run behind the mirror!

It is difficult though because parrots are so different to us. We can interpret the body language of a dog or cat etc fairly easily, but not birds. Maybe my suggestion isn’t quite so good for birds!

Regarding your definition of thinking - it sounds pretty similar to a common definition of intelligence. Maybe some kind of physical puzzle to open the cage door, get at the food etc? Is it your own pet parrot you want to test?

Lemme ask you something: can a nonsentient being learn language? If so, by what mechanism?

If not, how do infants learn language?

I do not think that this is a very good benchmark.


(I’m actually talking about budgies here, but the distinction is not terribly important IMO)

Based on my own observations, they do treat it as they would treat a companion bird; beak-tapping, chattering, closely facing and often attempting to pass food to it, but the point is that a lone budgie will actually do all this to other objects, even those that do not resemble another bird and are not reflective.

Yes, the female of our pair of budgies died last week - the male died a year ago - we now have a new male which we will not pair up (I’m aware that this is sometimes frowned upon as ‘unnatural’ - it will receive lots and lots of attention from us and keeping a lone bird is the only way to get them really tame and talking).
Years ago we had a lone male budgie that would mimic many words, phrases and sounds, as well as interacting with us a lot in games and play - not that this alone denotes any real intelligence.

I just thought it would be an interesting experiment, but I don’t want to do anything horribly complex or anything that would detract from the pet status of the bird.

Look into what has been done to test the intelligence level of birds in the raven family. Many scientists think that these birds are the “smartest”. I recall a test which involved a piece of meat on a string. The bird had to pull up the string with it’s beak, hold that length with it’s foot, then grab more string with it’s beak to work the meat up to it’s perch. The tests were made more complex by having crossed strings (only one with meat) so the bird had to examine the whole system to figure out which string to pull. This might have been detailed in Scientific American awhile back, but I’m sure a google search will turn up some articles more in depth than this one.

BTW, if you’ve ever had crows hanging out in your yard, you might have noticed they seem a lot “smarter” than other birds. I sure have.

If they aren’t “sentient,” they won’t be able to see anything, because they’ll be dead. All complex animals are sentient. Goldfish are sentient.

Whether or not they’re INTELLIGENT, or self-aware, is a different matter.

Babies don’t recognize themselves in the mirror for a couple of months…

Well, my dog usually doesn’t act strange when he looks into the mirror. When he had fever, he barked when he saw his mirror image. I assume that due to the fever, he thought it was another dog.
So, I am of the opinion that your assumption about other animals not recognizing themselves is incorrect.

Scientists already checked the brainwave patterns of animals when they are sleeping and it is the same mechanism with humans. It’s pretty clear that higher animals like dogs have sentience.

Sentience isn’t a binary state, it’s a sliding scale. Infants are born unable to communicate verbally, but they have the capacity to learn. A dolphin can perhaps get as far as “Guys, there’s some fish over here”, or “I’ve beached myself and don’t want to die”. They’re sentient, intelligent, but several orders of magnitude below us.

If you like, it comes with intelligence.

I agree with Daniel; I don’t think it’s necessarily true that advanced language skills are synonymous with sentience. There are particular structures in the human brain that correspond with language skills. When these parts of the brain are damaged, those skills can be lost. But I’m not convinced that self-awareness is lost, too.

i wonder what it is you mean by intelligent or sentient.

first of all, the chinese room is a bogus argument against intelligence.

i think in order to have a test, you have to decide at which point something goes from being “mechanistic” to “intelligent.”

i saw a tv show yesterday (or the day before, i forget) with an octopus that was finding its way through a maze, and it got better over time (it was remembering). why is that mechanistically responding to stimuli while humans display intelligence?

as far as language goes, honeybees are known to use symbolic communication. does that make them intelligent?

Most cats seem not to be able to “see” the mirror. They act as if it’s not even there. I don’t think that reveals much about their brains, but perhaps it reveals something about their eyes.


I vote for language. If a creature can honestly communicate using abstract symbols, I would give it the dubious honor of intelligence, albeit possibly a very dim intelligence.

Apes cannot. See cecil’s recent article on the topic.

Infants do not know language, as mentioned previously in this thread. That’s because infants are stupid. They’re learning fast, but they’re still very, very stupid. Child intelligence in my experience is usually measured in how fast the child learns compared to other children, rather than how much that child knows. The border between intellectual childhood and adulthood comes when the individual is measured by society in terms of how much he knows, rather than how fast he learns. So about 16 years, give or take.

Fair enough – this does answer how infants can learn. Lemme ask you, though: is there a specific reason for tying sentience (or, more accurately, sapience) to language, or is it just an intuitive thing?

Furthermore, how do you judge whether a being possesses a sufficiently complex language to be judged sapient? Must the language be one which is roughly analogous to English – i.e., composed of individual phonemes communicated through sound or sight?


Actually, what I took from his recent article was that the answer is still up in the air.