Reflecting on Self-Awareness: Part 2

Reflecting on Self-Awareness: Part 2

Welcome back to Superior Mirror’s blog on all things reflective and mirror-tastic! Last time we were delving rather deeply into the human psyche, with a look at how we perceive our “self” through recognizing our own reflection in the mirror and the questions it raises about consciousness. Chimpanzees seem to be able to recognize themselves just like humans can, but monkeys cannot. So what really is required for that spark of self-awareness, and is it limited just to primates? Well we made you ask the questions, so it’s only fair that we help provide the answers.

The World’s Thoughts
After Professor Gallup’s work struck a chord in 1969, psychologists and biologists alike all began rushing to perform variations of his experiment on other animals to prove him right…or prove him wrong. His original experiment was repeated several times with orangutans, gorillas, and bonobos and all showed the same results, but at best this was simply a shared trait in certain highly-developed primates. There are plenty of other intelligent animals on earth, so to truly demonstrate something as profound and the concept of “self,” it had to be possible to show the same results in other species. Dolphins and Orca whales for example were found to express self-awareness when shown their own reflections, twisting and turning their own bodies to see marks on their bodies in a mirror. Asian elephants and the Eurasian magpie also passed the mirror test, though at a lower percentage rate than dolphins, whales, or primates. Even young children, who in some ways have the same psychological development levels as certain animals were tested and found that self-awareness doesn’t take place until 18-24 months of age.

However much these findings are significant, other animals’ failure to pass the test have raised criticism that the mirror test is not a valid way of determining an animal’s ability for self-recognition, Dogs and cats (both of whom are considered creatures of reasonable intelligence) both failed the mirror test, as have parrots, sea lions, and pandas. Scientists both for and against the idea of sentience in these animals have agreed that this could be more of a biological failure than a psychological failure, citing the fact that many animals that don’t rely on sight as a primary means of social interaction could not have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror and still be self-aware. Dogs and cats, both of which heavily utilize scents and cries to differentiate themselves from one another, may not understand the connection between sight and personal identity. Other animals may recognize themselves but have no behavioral responses to marks on their own bodies, causing them to appear to fail when in fact they simply don’t have observable reactions for self-recognition.

Though some animals have passed the test and some have failed, the question still remains: does self-recognition itself imply actual self-awareness? Many don’t think so. Animals that pass the test may in fact have self-recognition in a mirror, but that does not necessarily imply abstract thought or “self” capability. In the words of Science and Nature writer Chelsea Wald, “we may think deep, reflective thoughts while using a mirror to brush our teeth, but that doesn’t mean that the part of the brain that’s using the mirror to direct our toothbrush is the same part…that’s contemplating the self.” So does the fact that us humans use mirrors to look at ourselves show that we are capable of complex, deep thoughts, or are we no more developed in this area than chimps and dolphins, merely associating actions with consequences? Science seems to be dived on the subject, so why don’t you tell us!

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