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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Rhesus monkeys pass self-awareness test

Self-awareness is quite literally, the ability to be aware of one’s self. A self-aware being knows that he or she is a separate individual who ‘owns’ her own mind and body. Scientists speak of a cognitive divide between those creatures that are capable of self-awareness and those that are not. Until now, the list of animals that were known to be self-aware was vanishing small: humans, apes, dolphins, an elephant and a bird. For the first time, monkeys have been added to that list.

There is a simple test called the ‘mark test’ you can use to determine whether a creature is capable of self-awareness. You place a mark on the animal’s face and then give the animal the opportunity to look in a mirror. If the creature searches behind the mirror or over its own shoulder to find the oddly marked individual, it isn’t self-aware. If, on the other hand, the animal indicates in some way that it knows the mark is on its own face, it is self-aware. Invariably, animals that are capable of self-awareness will use the mirror to examine parts of their bodies that they can’t normally see. You can see this demonstrated below:

Rhesus macaques have been tested multiple times for self-awareness and, like all monkeys, have always failed. It took Abigail Rajala, an animal technician working for Luis Populin of the University of Wisonsin-Madison, to overturn that view. The monkeys in question had been outfitted with special helmets for an experiment on attention deficit disorder. Rajala and others noticed that the monkeys clearly demonstrated self-awareness, based on their interactions with a mirror (turning it to examine portions of their anatomy). The researchers postulated that the funny helmets gave the monkeys more incentive to stare at themselves in the mirror, leading to their discovery that they were looking at themselves.

This brings up the question of how many other creatures actually are self-aware, but haven’t been detected by our testing methods. For example, suppose a creature knows the mark is on its own face, but doesn’t have a handy appendage that can be used to indicate that knowledge?