We take for granted that mirrors are something to look at when we want to explore our own body as seen by the rest of the world. But this behavior took a long time to evolve and it is also strictly cultural. If you have children, you’d know that it takes them between 12 and 15 months until they start realizing that the funny little human in the mirror is actually themselves. But there is much more to self-recognition than checking your outfit for the day in the mirror.
The true importance of self-awareness
Self awareness is a very important adaptation, because it gives animals the ability to recognize their environment and themselves in order to be territorial, groom and protect themselves, and help themselves generally survive in many situations.
In humans, recognizing the self often is thought to be fundamental for our society, a ground for empathy and adapting one’s behavior to the social situation at hand.
In some people, having specific conditions, self-awareness and recognizing the self as different from the others is impaired completely or only partially. In people on the autism spectrum, for example, self-awareness can be impaired to different degree, which is considered to be part of the confounding reasons for their difficulties with communication (here’s an extensive review of the topic).
How do we study self-awareness
For healthy humans, it was thought that the ultimate test for self-awareness is the so – called mirror test. To put it simply, it entails finding out if a person recognizes themselves in the mirror or if they think they see a stranger.
It was originally developed in 1970 by Gordon Gallup Jr. – a psychologist whose idea was to try and determine whether a non-human animal possesses the ability of visual self-recognition. First used in chimps, scientists soon started using the mirror test to measure the self-awareness abilities of other species too. And to their surprise (or not) other animals also pass the mirror test with flying marks and the process they go through is very similar to the one of humans.
Here’s a collection of four videos of animals who do recognize themselves in the mirror, I have to say I was most astonished by the magpies.
The selfishness of human intelligence
Humans, thought, tend to be so self-centered, especially in our self-awareness, that we keep using the same test to establish higher-cognition and intelligence in a number of other species, even if we know that for many of them sight is a far less important sense, than it is for us. And when a certain species does not pass the mirror test, we conclude that their cognitive abilities are less evolved that ours.
In this short playlist of videos, are examples (often hilarious) of animals we know well (cats, dogs and fish) which do not pass the mirror test, but I’d argue that it’s unthinkable to consider them unaware. Horses are one of the animals we are still not too sure if they can pass the mirror-mark test or not as the results so far are quite mixed.
The unaware human vs the aware animal
Only relatively recently, scientists started recognizing the fact that the mirror might not be the ultimate test, and far from the optimal one for many species which rely much more on their senses of smell and hearing.
A study on dogs for example did find out that they exhibit behavior of self-recognition related to their own smell, compared to the smell of other dogs or even their own scent, but modified with an additional compound by the researcher.
Iguanas too have been shown to recognize the self from the others based on pheromones, in a very similar way to dogs, since they use them to mark their territory.
Even humans perform vastly differently to the mirror-mark tests. A study showed that kids from rural areas do not show signs of self-recognition in a mirror until much later age, compared to children from western, urban areas.
This is great example of how scientific experimentation should be designed, tested and bench-marked against other methods to ensure that it is indeed measuring what the researchers think it is, rather than an unexpected confounding factor. If this is not done, someone very wrongly could conclude that rural-communities are significantly less intelligent, while the different mirror test results from the urban population are simply emphasizing the profound cross-cultural differences for which the test is not equipped to correct.