Last month, a team of six Japanese and one German scientist released a paper in the free online prepress server bioRxiv suggesting that a small reef fish called a cleaner wrasse had self-awareness because it passed what’s called a “mirror test.” The mirror test involves marking an animal’s face before introducing it to a mirror. According to scientists, any attempts by the animal to touch or remove the mark on its body are seen as a sign that they recognize their own self–a trait largely seen as exclusive to humans and a select group of nonhumans, including some primates, dolphins, elephants and pigeons.
But there’s a problem with the mirror test and the idea of self-awareness, as I discuss in my eighth book, Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel….
“The mirror test doesn’t actually show whether the creature has self-awareness. Actually, the mirror test is often interpreted exactly backwards, as I’ll explain.
First, there’s a defininition problem. Psychology professor Gordon Gallup — who invented the mirror mark test in the 1970s — has said, ‘Self-awareness provides the ability to contemplate the past, to project into the future, and to speculate on what others are thinking.’ That’s quite a definition. Try finding that in a mirror. The other end of the confusion spectrum is the ‘introspection’ school, typified by Wikipedia’s entry: ‘Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment.’ Introspection doesn’t reflect light. And recognizing yourself in a mirror doesn’t show whether you understand that you are separate from the environment. So in just two definitions, the innocent phrase ‘self-recognition’ supposedly refers to: the ability to know time, to guess what someone is thinking, to examine one’s own mind, and to understand you are distinct from the rest of the world. None of which can be seen in a mirror.
For our purposes, ‘self-awareness’ will mean what it sounds like: understanding that you are an individual, distinguishable from others and the rest of the world. Self-recognition means simply that you recognize your self from everything else. That was easy. Let’s proceed…
…Apes do figure out that the image in the mirror is themselves. Zookeepers had been watching apes recognizing themselves in mirrors for over a century, doing things like examining the inside of their mouth, which they love to do. But not until 1970 did four chimpanzees undergo the first formalized test. Researchers surreptitiously placed a dye mark on the chimpanzees’ foreheads. Later, encountering their reflection in a familiar mirror, the chimpanzees touched the marked spot on their own skin. The researcher concluded this was the, ‘first experimental demonstration of a self-concept in a subhuman.’ It was nothing of the sort. But the assertion has been dogma ever since. We put a mirror in a cage to see if the creature goes, ‘That’s me!’ If they do, we say they have a ‘self concept.’ Otherwise, they ‘fail,’ as most researchers put it; no self-awareness.
Um, no. When a bird, say, attacks the mirror, it does so precisely because it believes the reflection is another individual — not itself. That proves it understands it is distinct from others. It demonstrates self-concept. It doesn’t “fail” the mirror test. An animal that attacks its reflection clearly knows the difference between self and not-self. It is attempting to attack what it thinks is not-self. If the subject shows fear of the reflection or solicits play — as monkeys and some birds do — it has likewise proved it has a self-concept. It just doesn’t understand reflection.
All that the mirror test shows is whether an animal understands reflection of itself and cares about its reflection. Mirrors are extremely primitive tools for understanding the complexities of minds. It’s preposterous to say that animals who don’t understand their reflection don’t have self-awareness. Everything that runs from danger or searches for food proves that it distinguishes ‘self’ from ‘not self.’ Self-recognition is why a wolf eating an elk’s leg doesn’t bite into its own leg. A concept of ‘self’ is absolutely basic.”
When studying nonhuman sentience and emotions, we must think outside the box, or at look away from the mirror.