The minimal state of consciousness is sentience. This includes any phenomenal sensory experience - exteroceptive, such as vision and olfaction; interoceptive, such as pain and hunger; or proprioceptive, such as the sense of bodily position and movement. We propose unlimited associative learning (UAL) as the marker of the evolutionary transition to minimal consciousness (or sentience), its phylogenetically earliest sustainable manifestation and the driver of its evolution. We define and describe UAL at the behavioral and functional level and argue that the structural-anatomical implementations of this mode of learning in different taxa entail subjective feelings (sentience). We end with a discussion of the implications of our proposal for the distribution of consciousness in the animal kingdom, suggesting testable predictions, and revisiting the ongoing debate about the function of minimal consciousness in light of our approach.
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© 2016 Bronfman, Ginsburg and Jablonka.