From time immemorial, anthropocentrism has led us to believe that human beings are the only species capable of recognizing themselves and having self-awareness. However, research has shown that this is not the case and that many other animals, such as dolphins, orangutans, and elephants, may have this same ability.
The mirror test has been used to study this phenomenon, a test that has so far been used to measure self-recognition or self-awareness in animals. And we’re saying this so far because in recent years, with the discovery that even ants or fish pass the test, part of the scientific community has questioned the validity of the test for measuring this cognitive ability.
In this article we tell you which is the mirror test of self-awareness and what are their limits. Additionally, we review the latest research on this interesting phenomenon.
Self-awareness mirror test: what is it and what is it for?
The mirror test, developed in 1970 by Gordon G. Gallup Jr., is a test that measures the level of self-awareness and visual self-recognition. What determines the test is whether an animal can recognize its own reflection in a mirror as if it were an image of itself.
This test is quite simple: all you have to do is put a mirror at the animal’s disposal and observe its behavior. As the animal gets used to the mirror, the researchers use toilet dye to mark a part of its body that cannot be seen without the help of the mirror. So, if the animal constantly reacts knowing that the dye is in its own body, positive proof of self-awareness is obtained.
Behaviors that indicate the animal is able to recognize itself in its mirror image include rotating and adjusting the body to better see the mark in the mirror, or touching the mark with its own body or with a finger while looking in the miror. The animals that until recently had passed the mirror test were: chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, dolphins, elephants, common pigeons and, of course, humans.
However, recent research has revealed that even some species of ants and fish reacted positively to the self-awareness mirror test, Which has generated a great deal of controversy in the scientific community, dividing the opinion between those who believe that the evidence is not valid or conclusive and those who feel that it is necessary to rethink the implications it may have for the study of human self-awareness.
Research with labrid fish
One of the studies that revolutionized the field of animal self-knowledge research was the research of Kohda et al. (2019) in which the behavior of a fish of the family labridae was observed under the conditions of the mirror test.
The results of the study concluded that the fish reacted to its reflection when viewed in the mirror and met all criteria for the mirror test. However, when the fish was given a color tag in a modified mark test, the animal attempted to remove the mark by scratching its body in the presence of the mirror, but showed no response to the transparent or colored markings. the absence of a mirror.
For the authors of the study, although the bridle fish show behavioral responses that meet established test criteria for other animals, the result does not imply that this species is self-aware. However, the results of this research open several questions that remain unanswered: Is this test really valid for detecting self-awareness in animals? And if so, if this species of fish is aware of itself, does the concept need to be rethought?
Does Self-Awareness Really Measure The Mirror Test?
The validity of a test such as the mirror test had not been seriously discussed until the publication of new research on animal species that we a priori would never have believed capable of showing signs of self-awareness. The positive evidence in fish and ants has made much of the scientific community question whether the mirror test is a good measure of self-awareness.
Alex Jordan, an evolutionary biologist and one of the authors of the controversial labrid fish study, is hesitant to point out that fish are as intelligent as chimpanzees or 20-month-old human babies can be and questions the validity of the mirror test. to measure the concept of self-awareness.
According to Jordan, one of the problems with the test is that vision is used to measure self-awareness. However, not all animals (or all humans) rely on sight as the predominant sense. For example, bats, which depend on their sonar to move around, may be self-aware and not be able, as humans, to formulate a test that detects it because of our bias. visual.
Likewise, although elephants may pass the mirror test, they are more dependent on smell than sight, and the sophistication of their consciousness may have led us to misinterpretations. In this sense, this test may simply not be suitable for some animals because we do not have the same sensory view of the world.
The “olfactory” mirror test
To overcome the visual bias of the self-awareness mirror test, Horowitz et al. (2017) designed an odor test for dogs that involved modifying the smell of their urine.. It should be noted that these animals did not pass the traditional test, as they are not able to recognize themselves in the mirror.
In the experiment, the researchers presented the dogs with several containers. Each with an olfactory stimulus: in one, the dog’s urine; and in the other, urine whose odor had been altered. By observing how long each dog has been in the containers, they have been shown to be able to distinguish between the olfactory “image” of themselves and the altered one, Tracking down his own scent longer when he had an additional scent accompanying it, than when he didn’t.
The ecological validity of the scent test was examined by presenting subjects with scents from other known or unknown dogs: dogs spent more time looking for the scent of other canines than their own scent. Finally, in a second experiment, the dogs spent more time with the modified stimulus than with the modified scent alone, indicating that the novelty alone did not explain their behavior.
Ultimately, the results of this research suggest that dog behavior involves some recognition of their own scentWhat results in the traditional self-awareness mirror test implies the existence of visual self-recognition or “self-awareness” in these animals. Something that should come as no surprise to all those people who live with these domestic creatures.
- Bard, KA, Todd, BK, Bernier, C., Love, J. & Leavens, DA (2006). Self-knowledge in human babies and chimpanzees: what is measured and what does the mark and mirror test mean ?. Childhood, 9 (2), pages 191 to 219.
- Horowitz, A. (2017). Smell for themselves: Dogs study their own smells longer when they are changed in a “scent mirror” test. Behavioral Processes, 143, pages 17-24.
- Kohda, M., Hotta, T., Takeyama, T., Awata, S., Tanaka, H., Asai, JY and Jordan, AL (2019). If a fish can pass the score test, what are the implications of the animal consciousness and self-awareness test ?. PLoS Biology, 17 (2), e3000021.