The Test for Self-awareness in Animals Might Not Be Sensitive Enough

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This monkey is demonstrating the human trait known as "emo." Photo: DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images

The typical scientific test for self-awareness in monkeys goes like so: While the animal is sleeping, put a spot of dye on its face, and then see if it notices in the mirror when it wakes up. This may also be used to test sobriety in frat animals. But the results of recent tests in Rhesus macaques are making scientists think that the "gold standard" for self-awareness, which has had its fair share of controversy, may not be sensitive enough to register which species are capable of self-awareness. Macaques previously failed the "mark test." But during an unrelated experiment testing ADHD drugs given to children, macaques were given skullcap-mounted implants to test electrical signals in their brains. When the macaques were put in front of a mirror, they started to use it to entertain themselves, including altering "their posture to look at their own genitals and other body parts they couldn't see directly." That is very human-type behavior!

The researchers reasoned that the cap was enough of a marker for the animals to recognize that it was their own reflection they were seeing and move the mirror and their bodies to groom themselves. "When they could use the mirror they touched these areas 10 times as often as they did without it." When given a bigger mirror, the macaques looked at themselves twice as often as in the small mirror, "performing gymnastic feats to view reflections of otherwise inaccessible parts of their bodies, especially their genitals." If we're reading this right, does that mean that the ultimate signifier of self-awareness is obsession with one's own genitals? Freud would definitely have something to say about this.

Monkeys bid to join elite self-awareness club [New Scientist]