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Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall: Can you reveal an animal’s inner world at all?

Daniel Povinelli: A chimp could use a mirror as a tool to examine or groom his body, but that wouldn't indicate anything about the richness of the animal's inner life.

NELL GREENFIELD-BOYCE, ET AL: Daniel Povinelli was in high school when he first read about a clever experiment, published in 1970, that showed chimpanzees  — but not monkeys — can recognize themselves in mirrors. “I bought into the story of mirrors and self-recognition hook, line, and sinker,” he recalls. “Because it is a compelling story.”

All it took was a simple mirror, or so the story went, to reveal that our close chimpanzee relatives are self-aware, with the same kind of basic self-concept that humans have. “The idea that there are other creatures out there for whom we can only access their mental states, their self-consciousness, through the trick of a mirror was somehow just deeply inviting,” recalls Povinelli, now a scientist with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

He ended up devoting years of his life to studying mirrors and higher-order consciousness. As a result, he now has a much different view on what animals may be doing as they study their own reflections—but says after a half-century, the public seems stuck on the scientific tale that drew him in as a teenager… The famous mirror self-recognition test was dreamed up in the 1960’s by Gordon Gallup, Jr., a scientist now with the State University of New York at Albany…

Most species tend to treat a mirror image as a stranger to be courted or attacked, says Gallup, who notes that “parakeets will literally interact with themselves in mirrors as though they were seeing another parakeet for their entire lives.” Some scientists suspected that primates, however, might do better. Even Charles Darwin once watched, fascinated, as a captive orangutan named Jenny made faces at a mirror.

When Gallup was able to actually start doing experiments with chimps, a few years after he came up with his test, he found that the chimps initially acted as if the mirror image were another animal. But then, after a couple of days, their attitude shifted. The chimps began using the mirror to examine parts of their bodies like their teeth or genitals. When Gallup anesthetized them and put red dye on their faces, the chimps later woke up and reacted to the unexpected mirror image as if they understood that the marks were on their own faces…

Over the decades, researchers have subsequently tried his mirror self-recognition experiment, or slight variations, in a slew of other species—everything from magpies to ants to manta rays. In Gallup’s view, only three species have consistently and convincingly demonstrated mirror self-recognition: chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans.

Others, though, think the list is longer. Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist and marine mammal scientist at Hunter College, has tested both dolphins and elephants and believes that both show signs of recognizing themselves in mirrors… But Povinelli, who was once so entranced with Gallup’s mirror test that it made him devote much of his life to studying animal cognition, says that’s reading way, way too much into this one lab test.

He believes the mirror test reveals that chimpanzees have some kind of self-concept, but not necessarily a grand psychological one. Perhaps, he says, they may have a more sophisticated sense of their own body’s movement and how it relates to the movements in the mirror. With that kind of physical self-concept, a chimp could use a mirror as a tool to examine or groom its body, he says, but that wouldn’t indicate anything about the richness of the animal’s inner life.

“With respect to the mirror test, the million-dollar question about it is always: What is the chimp thinking about when it interacts with its own mirror image?” Povinelli says. After all, humans can have all kinds of complex thoughts about themselves as they brush their teeth or shave, he says, “but is that what’s required? Do I have to think about any of that in order to brush my teeth in front of the mirror?” And while it’s true that monkeys, unlike chimps, can live with mirrors for years without spontaneously showing signs that they recognize their own reflections, recent research shows monkeys can actually learn to perform this feat, if they’re given proper training.

He says people live with cats and dogs and other animals all the time and tend to project our own understanding of the world onto them, but we can’t directly interview them to ask what they’re experiencing. “And so when a test comes along that is dressed up in scientific garb like a mirror and then a mark and we’re in a scientific laboratory,” Povinelli says, “we immediately want to point to this as confirmation of what we thought we knew all along.”SOURCE…


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