Consciousness and Memory: Unraveling the Connection through Canine Training

By Madie Justice, The Ohio State University

To be, or not to be conscious, that is the question that plagues our daily lives. Although the previous statement was more of an exaggeration meant to spark interest, the term “conscious” has ventured away from its original meaning and may need some redefining. With a quick ChatGPT search, “Consciousness refers to the state of being aware of one’s thoughts, surroundings, sensations, and emotions. It involves the ability to perceive and experience the world, to process information, and to have subjective experiences and self-awareness” (OpenAI, 2023). It implies a distinct separation between consciousness and unconsciousness. Andrew Budson proposes that memory is any change within the brain that reflects long-term storage of new information and, he believes that consciousness developed as a particular memory system (Budson, 2022). Memory is composed of both conscious (explicit) and nonconscious (implicit) representations. Explicit memory includes retrieval of facts, events, and episodes, whilst implicit memory includes skills, habits, and certain forms of category learning, as well as priming and certain simple conditioning. In this sense, both conscious and nonconscious memories work together to shape our everyday lives.

I am currently a third year at The Ohio State University, where I began my involvement in raising service dogs in training with the organization 4 Paws for Ability out of Xenia, Ohio. Setting aside the question of a nonhuman animal’s consciousness, I will draw upon my experiences as a volunteer trainer to illustrate this multiple memory systems proposition. The dogs in this organization start their training only a couple days after they are born. From the start, they are taught their basic commands explicitly. For example, to teach “sit,” we explicitly vocalize the command whilst holding a treat to their nose and raising it in an upward motion. Their natural tendency is to plop their rear end on the ground to better position themselves to acquire the treat. Clearly, the puppies cannot comprehend English, nor do they instantly recognize the actions they have just performed, but through repetition, they are able to associate the word with the action. This high-repetition learning is an example of implicit learning in psychology and looks a lot like reinforcement learning in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Once they master that, we implement a hand motion that either accompanies the spoken word, or takes the place of it. With practice, they associate the word “sit” and/or the motion with the action, and can effortlessly carry out the instruction without a thought. This illustrates the transition between encoding of conscious learning into long term storage, to unconscious retrieval of that incident. Initially, the learning is facilitated consciously with explicit instruction, and then practice is used to hone the memory system. In this context, the initial training session served as a conscious scaffold, facilitating a smoother and faster integration of more advanced commands into their nonconscious memory, such as sniffing out an impending seizure or alerting of a spike in their handler’s blood sugar. These instances merely scratch the surface of our capabilities as cognitive beings. They offer insights into the remarkable achievements of historical figures and shed light on our ability to evolve into intelligent humans and even dogs performing extraordinary tasks like detecting bombs in the Middle East. With this understanding, we have found the key to unlocking our potential.

Works Cited

Budson AE, Richman KA, Kensinger EA. Consciousness as a Memory System. Cogn Behav
– Neurol. 2022 Dec 1;35(4):263-297. doi: 10.1097/WNN.0000000000000319. PMID: 36178498; PMCID: PMC9708083

OpenAI. (2023). ChatGPT (June 12 version) [Large language model].

* ​The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this presentation are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official views, position, or policies, either expressed or implied, of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the United States Space Force. The intent of this academic seminar is to discuss publicly available science with thought leaders in the field.