Animals and mirror images
Posted on: 29 May 2012
During the last election my car stopped at a railway crossing and I saw a man tossing a yellow downy chick from hand to hand like a ball. I got out of the car, snatched the chick (did something else unmentionable) and put her down on my lap. I took her to my bedroom and fed her. In two days the chick had grown so smart that she followed me everywhere and sat on the rim of the bucket when I bathed. She hated me reading and would peck at my glasses. She wanted to be carried up and down in the cusp made by my hands until she slept.
If we left her alone in the room, she shouted till someone came in. And she was the hugest ant eater – chasing and eating upto 100 a day! At some point she discovered my full length mirror and talked to it, admired herself, strutted up and down before it. The mirror became her companion. Did she recognize herself or did she think it was another person? She knew it was her. All my dogs look into the mirror.
They study me standing behind them and when I lift my hands or make a weird movement they respond without turning around. So, if they recognize me, I am sure they know who they are too. Its just that they pay as much attention to their mirror images as I do – a casual glance as we pass by. This mirror test, or self recognition test, was taken very seriously by scientists in order to determine whether animals are intelligent or not. Self awareness, according to the psychologists, means a sense of who the being is and who carries out actions.
This sense is important in social interactions, moral reasoning, consciousness, responsibility, desire and development. These abilities give humans the sense that they are entities separate from the external world, and allow them to interact with other agents and the environment in intelligent ways. Charles Darwin held a mirror to a zoo orangutan and noted that he made a series of facial expressions.
But Darwin said he could not make out whether the animal had recognised himself or thought the mirror was simply another toy. In 1970 George Gallup at the State University of New York, Albany, re-enacted Darwin's initial experiment with four wild young chimpanzees. First, each chimpanzee was put into a room by itself for two days. Next a full length mirror was placed in the room for 80 hours in varying distances from the cage - starting farther away and moving closer. Their behaviour was recorded. At first the chimpanzees made threatening gestures at their own images. However, after a while, the chimpanzees realized it was a reflection and used it to examine parts of their bodies ( as we do ) and make faces. Then Gallup surreptitiously marked the animal with two dye spots.
The animal saw the spots in the mirror and identified them with its own body by turning and adjusting the body in order to better view the marking in the mirror, or poking at the marking on its own body while viewing the mirror. Even children, who are introduced to mirrors first, think it is someone else. In fact most humans fail the mirror test until they are about 18 months old (I still do – I refuse to believe this fat person staring at me is me). So do people who have been blind from birth but have their sight restored. Humans with autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease and developmental disabilities also fail the self awareness test.
Tests on pigs showed that they could understand the mirror and use its information - they were able to find a bowl of food hidden behind a wall using a mirror. But the scientists insisted that they could not recognize themselves. This seems foolish. Pigs are the smartest of all animals and if they could recognize other objects in the mirror it seems unlikely that they had no idea of themselves. They probably didn't fall all over with amazement – as we don't. Researchers have come to the same conclusion about dogs. About Dogs?
Animals that are so totally aware of themselves? Birds have been dismissed as 'birdbrains' who attack their own reflections. Scientists used this test for years to establish a 'cognitive divide' between people and animals 'like us' – meaning the apes and every other being on the planet. But Luis Populin a professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proved in September 2010, that rhesus macaques who were supposed to be non-self aware recognised themselves. The macaques explored their own body even standing upside down to see difficult areas. A macaque will respond to another monkey by adopting an aggressive or submissive posture.
These monkeys showed no such reaction to their mirror images. (Rhesus monkeys, being unaware of themselves supposedly, have been used extensively in research. Humans have sent them into space, cloned them and planted jellyfish genes in them). Now, the question arises: If rhesus monkeys are able to recognize themselves in the same way that humans can, then they probably have a similar understanding that they are entities independent from the environment. Should they be used so brutally?
The finding casts doubt on both the relevance of the mark test and on the existence of a definitive cognitive divide between the 'higher' species and the 'lower' ones. It was argued that only the higher species like dolphins, apes and elephants were self aware. But, in 2008, the ability was found in magpies - a species with a brain structure very different from mammals and without the neocortex in the brain that is considered the centre of self awareness. In the same year Keio University scientists showed that pigeons are able to discriminate and have self-cognitive abilities higher than 3-year-old children who have difficulty recognizing their self-image. Not only that, pigeons can discriminate people's photographs from others and discriminate paintings of a certain painter (such as Van Gogh) from another painter (such as Chagall). So the scientists are back to square one – to find other tests in which they can prove animals are stupid and humans are not. It becomes easier to experiment on them and to eat them.
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