Extract from Chapter 8 - Reflections and Ripples:
- Operationalising self-awareness (that is, setting up a standard repeatable test to establish its presence) sounds a ludicrously impractical task; but since I can only have introspective knowledge of my self, can I ever be sure that I am not alone in a sea of automatons? One glaringly obvious way to test the self's existence - so obvious, in fact, that it has been totally overlooked - is with a mirror. The profundity of what takes place in a mirror is in perpetual danger of being lost through familiarity. Yet it is an extraordinary experience. A man, an ape or a canary can be brought face to face with a physiognomy it could never have seen before - its own. I think it is a far greater paradox that we see ourselves than that a canary does not (after all, if you have never seen a face before, how can you recognise it?). In man, it only comes with practice and learning experience in infancy through prolonged exposure to mirror doubles. Infants up to eighteen or twenty months still see a playmate, and frequently peer or grope behind the mirror to catch out this someone else. But having inherited the capacity, the baby eventually learns to recognise himself 'out there'. Of course it goes far deeper than just learning; quite probably, as a necessary pre-requisite to achieve recognition, we need an integrated self-concept which we can bounce off the reflective surface and identify with. But how do we build up such a recognisable self-image before we actually see ourselves in a mirror?
- Self-awareness and self-recognition are not identical, they are better described as 'isomorphs', and hence one should indicate the other's presence. In the months before the self strengthens in a child he sees a mirror companion, and in the months when it disintegrates in a schizophrenic the person may stand and stare intently in the mirror, progressively losing all powers of self-recognition. Apparently animals, unlike children, never learn to recognise their mirror image. They respond socially, behaving as they would towards a member of their own species, threatening, submitting or contact-calling. A chicken high in the pecking order will fly into a frenzy at the sight of this mirror-intruder, attempting to beat it into subservience to retain its own rank (necessarily a self-defeating process). The same is true of dogs and cage-birds, despite the pet owner's insistence as a point of honour that the animal recognises itself; in fact it recognises only a companion. All ape researchers at some time or other have given a mirror to their charges, and left some lovely accounts of the ensuing battles. This is Romanes', concerning an ape amusing spectators in the Jardin des Plantes;
At last someone threw in a small hand looking-glass, with a strongly made frame of wood. This the ape at once laid hold of, and began to brandish like a hammer. Suddenly he was arrested by the reflection of himself in the glass, and looked puzzled for a moment; then he darted his head behind the glass to find the other of his kind that he evidently supposed to be there. Astonished to find nothing, he apparently bethought himself that he had not been quick enough with his movement. He now proceeded to raise and draw the glass nearer to him with great caution, and then with a swifter dart looked behind. Again finding nothing, he repeated the attempt once more. He passed from astonishment to anger, and began to beat with the frame violently on the floor of the cage. Soon the glass was shattered, and pieces fell out. Continuing to beat, he was in the course of one blow again arrested by his image in the glass still remaining in the frame. Then, as it seemed, he determined to make one trial more. More circumspectly than ever the whole first part of the process was gone through with; more violently than ever the final dart made. His fury over failure knew no bounds. He crunched the frame and the glass together with his teeth, he beat on the floor, he crunched again, till nothing but splinters was left.
- Yerkes witnessed a less destructive episode with his young female gorilla Congo in 1927 (perhaps she was less concerned with intimidating the intruder than a male might have been). She kissed and fingered the image, keeping one hand dangling round the back of the two-foot mirror feeling for this stranger. Perplexed, she shuffled round behind the frame, only moving back again to gaze through this two-dimensional space portal. Eventually, she too resorted to thumping. But like all experimenters, Yerkes only allowed her ten-minute sessions, totalling at the end no more than an hour. "I have never yet kept her in the proximity of the mirror long enough to let her get tired of it and go away," he wrote. A pity – if he had done, disinterestedness might have been the last thing he would have seen.
- If self-recognition is learned, and we only realise our potential after prolonged exposure to mirrors, then next to nothing is gained by giving the gorilla a series of ten-minute peeks at itself. Coming to this conclusion, Gordon Gallup, then at Tulane University, thought it only fair to test monkeys and apes under lengthy exposure, with quite unexpected results. I asked him early in I978 specifically what his motives had been: "my original interest," he recollected, "was merely in knowing whether animals might be capable of recognizing themselves in mirrors. In all honesty, I must admit that my thinking about self-awareness has gradually evolved with the data." He did not set out to record self-recognition in order to prove self-consciousness1 in chimpanzees; his motives were directed elsewhere, which is important. He simply wanted to duplicate2 conditions that led to man's self-recognition, which meant subjecting apes and monkeys to equally long exposure. As it turned out, he was not ready for the consequences. He commented, "I was actually more surprised by the inability of monkeys to recognise themselves, than in the chimpanzees' success."
- In separate experiments, Gallup exposed four wild-born chimpanzees to full-length mirrors over a ten-day period (the mirrors remaining outside the cage bars), sampling their behaviour at intervals and dividing it into "social", such as bobbing, vocalising and threatening - as if reacting to an intruder - and self-directed. Since the chimpanzees were suddenly confronted by apes whose faces were totally unfamiliar, a good deal of threat-posturing was first in evidence. But within two or three days a quiet reversal had taken place. One of the females, Marge, began peering into her own mouth, protruding her lips to expose more teeth and gums in the mirror, evidently fascinated by this cavity into herself that she had never seen before.
- Between the second and third day, there was a rapid rise in the number of self-directed actions as the apes came to grips with their self-images. As Gallup reported in Science:
Such self-directed responding took the form of grooming parts of the body which would otherwise be visually inaccessible without the mirror, picking bits of food from between the teeth while watching the mirror image, visually guided manipulation of anal-genital areas by means of the mirror, picking extraneous material from the nose by inspecting the reflected image, making faces at the mirror, blowing bubbles, and manipulating food wads with the lips by watching the reflection. In all instances of self-directed behavior, the self is the referent through the reflection, whereas in cases of social behaviour the reflection is the referent.
- Doubters at this juncture would need more to convince them. “Even though these data were impressive," admitted Gallup later, “ … it was felt that other investigators might not be particularly convinced by the seemingly subjective interpretations of self-directed responsiveness in the presence of a mirror." What Gallup needed was a cast-iron test. To this end, he pioneered a technique, later adapted for use on human babies, to determine the onset of self-awareness. He anaesthetised the chimps (this is not done to babies !), then painted bright red spots on to the eyebrow and ear with an alcohol-soluble dye that can be neither felt nor smelled when dry. The dots were undetectable, except via the mirror. And with the chimps unconscious, there was no recollection of the spots actually being dabbed on. Four hours later, fully recovered, fed and watered, the chimpanzees were re-exposed to the mirror. Perplexed by their transformation while asleep3, they immediately began fingering the red blemishes, guided by the mirror, occasionally (and this is important, as Gallup was aware) smelling and staring at their finger-tips. Gallup pointed out that "if the reflection was still being interpreted as another animal there could be no reason for the chimps to smell or look at their own fingers ... because these would not have been the fingers that made actual contact with the red spots”. Only because the apes concluded that their own faces were spotted and not those of intruder chimpanzees, was there "a reason to inspect their OWN fingers".
- The mirror test seems so obvious yet profound that one wonders why no one had thought of it before. Partly, I suspect, because the incentive had been lacking, certainly while antagonistic ideologies held sway; but also because, before Gallup's operational tie-up between self-recognition and self-awareness, the mirror was just too familiar for critical appraisal. And yet, searching the literature for photographs of chimpanzees at home, one finds superb examples of chimpanzees engrossed in their own reflections. Consider the best, Hayes' 1954 photograph of Viki, armed with pliers and mirror and intent upon pulling a tooth. Clearly, she recognised herself (raised as a human, she had long enough exposure to her reflected self), yet the photograph was published without comment or analysis. Were it not for our contemptuous familiarity, we might have sat up startled when Washoe, asked whom she saw in the mirror, signalled instantly, "Me, Washoe."
- Orang-utans identify with their mirror image, while Patterson's Koko goes one better than Lucy, whose own "crazy faces" are a never-ending source of self-amusement; Koko powders her dark face with chalk dust and stares at her ghostly reflection. Now, it is less of a surprise to learn that apes also recognise themselves in magazine pictures (that's what comes of being famous). Infant apes first recognise their mirror selves at about the same time as infant people: as soon as their maturing cortical connections permit it. In children it occurs at about twenty months. Young Nim watched his trainer blowing bubblegum in the mirror, then turned to the glass and stuck out his tongue and peered curiously into his own mouth; he was twenty-three months. His self-image was stabilising, indeed, not a month before, "me" had entered his vocabulary; while a month after his first self-encounter, he began talking of that person "Nim". So again, it looks suspiciously as though man and his 'uncultured' cousins share the same potential, and are perhaps psychologically closer than previous generations imagined even in their wildest Darwinian dreams. Gallup boldly closed his original Science piece by precipitously drawing a line across nature:
[preliminary results] suggest that we many have found a qualitative psychological difference among primates, and that the capacity for self-recognition may not extend below [sic] man and the great apes.
- This can only strengthen Mason's belief that "apes and man have entered a cognitive domain that sets them apart from all other primates". As Gallup admitted, what really surprised him was that monkeys failed to identify their mirror twin. Not only monkeys, but gibbons also continued socialising into the mirror even after long exposure. By 1977, Gallup had saturated a crab-eating macaque with some 2400 hours of mirror exposure in an "attempt to salvage the conceptual integrity of monkeys". But to no avail - still it continued its social display, grimacing and lip-smacking, as though incessantly confronted by a rival who refused to take the hint. Strange, since macaques were shown in classic experiments in the mid-1960s actually to deploy mirrors to pinpoint food morsels deliberately hidden behind screens. They appreciate that the food's reflection is inedible (or, at least, unattainable) since, having spotted the food, they smartly turn away from the mirror to feel for it. But if a real food morsel can cast a ghostly image, and the mirror world is only one of bright shadows, why does the macaque stubbornly fail to recognise its own ghost?
- This is a special case of Gallup's broader riddle (whose validity is itself open to question): "How are we to account for such an apparent psychological void between great apes and other prirnates?" He hazarded a guess that monkeys lacked "an integrated self-concept”; meaning that there might be no cohesive inner 'self' identity to correspond with the mirror image. I wonder whether the evidence demands such harsh conclusions. If we can assume that even before self-recognition, socially reared chimps have a self-identity - and that it does not materialise on habitually viewing themselves - so it might equally exist in monkeys, regardless of recognition. All that mirrors do, after all, is "objectify" self-awareness: that is, give us the means of detecting it. We have not been able to detect it in monkeys, admittedly, but does it thereby follow that no self-concept exists? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I further wonder whether monkeys simply fail to learn to recognise themselves, although Gallup finds this" difficult to accept and impossible to reconcile with the data". If that is true, one is left groping in the dark, wondering what turn to make next; but Gallup, although he still clings to his belief that monkeys probably lack a self-concept, has begun to help. Writing recently in American Psychologist, he conceded less harshly that "the apparent lack of continuity in this instance may be a consequence of a failure to tap an underlying continuum. The [mirror] techniques described here were designed simply to assess the existence of self-recognition, not to quantify the capacity." As so often happens when dealing with monkeys, apes and men, we might be confronted by varying thresholds which Victorians stretched into gaping chasms. "It is possible," even Gallup admits, "that as yet undefined tests of the self-concept, which requires a lower threshold for recognition, might yield positive results for monkeys.”
- This takes the emphasis off those overworked 'chasms', and prods us to devise alternative tests of self-awareness. Before surrendering to the selfless monkey, every attempt should be made to fill Gallup's "apparent psychological void". Monkeys do their damnedest to try experimental patience, we should not give up on them too soon. Remember that cross-modal4 association in monkeys was only detected after a struggle. Moreover, formation of the self-image presupposes sophisticated modal5 crossing: if an animal cannot integrate its senses, it stands little chance of building a conceptual image of itself One wonders if a similar struggle will herald the monkey's belated self-recognition.
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