Monkeys can learn how to use a mirror

Self-awareness is surely more than just passing a “mirror test”. There would seem to be a continuum between the two discrete states of “not being self-aware” (a stone) to being “fully self-aware” (higher primates and humans), though I am not entirely sure if even higher levels of self-awareness are conceivable. I take self-awareness to be on a higher plane than self-consciousness. Self-awareness is the recognition of a tree as “being in a forest” whereas self-consciousness is just being the “tree”. Empirically, sentience is an even higher cognitive capability where sentience requires self-awareness which in turn requires self-consciousness.

Most mammals are conscious of self or at least of self-interest. Even a tree for that matter could be said to exhibit self-interest. Passing the mirror test seems to be a fairly conclusive evidence of well-developed, self-awareness but that is not to say that some degree of self-awareness is not possible even when the mirror test is not passed. Whales, dolphins and some elephants have passed the mirror test along with most of the higher primates (gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos). The magpie is the only bird known which has passed the test. Monkeys (rhesus monkeys, macaques) do not pass the test but are clearly self-conscious.

Now, new research has shown that rhesus monkeys can be taught to make use of a mirror such that they could pass the mirror test. Can awareness therefore be taught?

Liangtang Chang, Gin Fang, Shikun Zhang, Mu-Ming Poo, Neng Gong. Mirror-Induced Self-Directed Behaviors in Rhesus Monkeys after Visual-Somatosensory Training. Current Biology, January 2015 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.016

EurekAlertUnlike humans and great apes, rhesus monkeys don’t realize when they look in a mirror that it is their own face looking back at them. But, according to a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on January 8, that doesn’t mean they can’t learn. What’s more, once rhesus monkeys in the study developed mirror self-recognition, they continued to use mirrors spontaneously to explore parts of their bodies they normally don’t see.

“Our findings suggest that the monkey brain has the basic ‘hardware’ [for mirror self-recognition], but they need appropriate training to acquire the ‘software’ to achieve self-recognition,” says Neng Gong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In earlier studies, scientists had offered monkeys mirrors of different sizes and shapes for years, even beginning at a young age, Gong explains. While the monkeys could learn to use the mirrors as tools for observing other objects, they never showed any signs of self-recognition. When researchers marked the monkeys’ faces and presented them with mirrors, they didn’t touch or examine the spot or show any other self-directed behaviors in front of those mirrors in the way that even a very young person would do.

In the new study, Gong and his colleagues tried something else. They sat the monkeys in front of a mirror and shined a mildly irritating laser light on the monkeys’ faces. After 2 to 5 weeks of the training, those monkeys had learned to touch face areas marked by a spot they couldn’t feel in front of a mirror. They also noticed virtual face marks in mirroring video images on a screen. They had learned to pass the standard mark test for mirror self-recognition.

Most of the trained monkeys–five out of seven–showed typical mirror-induced self-directed behaviors, such as touching the mark on the face or ear and then looking and/or smelling at their fingers as if they were thinking something like, “Hey, what’s that there on my face?” They also used the mirrors in other ways that were unprompted by the researchers, to inspect other body parts. …… 

I note that Gordon Gallup Jr. who developed the mark test is not convinced:

Gordon Gallup Jr., an evolutionary psychologist at the State University of New York at Albany, who was not involved with the research, developed the “mark test,” which is essentially the gold standard for measuring whether an animal possesses self-recognition. [8 Humanlike Behaviors of Primates] ….

Gallup, who developed the mark test, called the study “fundamentally flawed,” because it merely demonstrated that the animals could be trained to do something, not that they understood what they were doing.

“I bet I could train a pigeon to pick the correct answers to the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE),” Gallup told Live Science. “If the pigeon got [the maximum GRE score], would it be qualified for Harvard University?”

Perhaps, given self-consciousness, much of what we call awareness can be taught. Maybe that is how babies develop; an inbuilt self-consciousness which then becomes self-aware as learning (mainly self-taught) occurs. Learning requires memory and maybe that is why this self-taught awareness is what also deteriorates with the memory loss that accompanies the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

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