I think it’s conscious if it can experience time skips. When I went under general anesthesia, it was like a time skip. My memory of the moments up to “I wonder how long the anesthetic will take to hit my brain” was strong when I woke up, and it felt like little time passed.
You can put a mouse under general anesthesia. Maybe also a lizard, I don’t know. But a nematode, I really doubt. And a rock? Nope. Yet rocks still have “memories”. A rock “remembers” being scraped by another rock a million years ago. It leaves an imprint. But the rock doesn’t know what happened.
Even under general anesthesia, you still have neural responses to stimuli. Anesthesia tends to disrupt the connections between the brain. So maybe like the neural response doesn’t get past primary sensory cortex, all the way to the parts for abstract thought.
Here’s basically what they say:
It’s possible to not be aware of stimuli, and still have a neural response. The difference seems to be bursting in L5, although that’s not totally proven and it’s probably more complicated.
The bursting triggers detection via a few subcortical structures. Those synapses are required for detection. (This is pretty cool, they silenced specific synapses.) One possibility is that the burst signal is required for thalamocortical cells in higher order nuclei to fire, propagating the sensory response to parts of the brain for more abstract perception etc.
The studies mainly use this kind of experiment: There’s a very weak stimulus, does the animal notice it? Imagine trying to notice a very weak stimulus. Even if you fail, your brain is still having a neural response.