What do mirror tests test?
Morell (Virginia)
Source: Aeon, 23 October, 2019
Paper - Abstract

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  1. The author’s stance – which I share – is approximately that of Frans De Waal, as exemplified in the following quotation from the paper:-
      Meanwhile, de Waal argues that ‘all animals need a self-concept’. Monkeys, for instance, must know their own weight before leaping onto a tree branch, and be aware of their physical fitness and strength before fighting another monkey. And most – perhaps all – animals need to know something about themselves, their fellows, and their role in their societies in order to get along. Perhaps it’s time, de Waal suggests, to find tests that don’t rely solely on vision to investigate other animals’ self-awareness. It’s a ‘gross simplification to lump all animals’ that fail the mirror test into a ‘single cognitive category’ when they respond so differently to mirrors, he adds. Small-brained birds, such as robins, will repeatedly attack their reflected image, unable to let go of the notion that it’s an invader; while cats and dogs typically choose to ignore the stranger in the mirror, and others, notably monkeys and African grey parrots, can use mirrors to find objects that are out of sight. Nor do all monkeys treat their reflections as strangers. There is an as-yet unrecognised continuum to the MSR test, and it would make sense to investigate this, says de Waal, instead of looking at it simply as a pass-fail exam.
  2. The paper cites, in sequence, the following interesting papers. Because these papers are so numerous, I’ve not yet logged them in my database, but have parked copies of them – where the papers are freely available – in my ‘PDFs\To Be Processed\Papers - To Be Processed’ directory lest the references subsequently fail. However, I’ve extracted the paper abstracts below.
    • Amsterdam - Mirror self‐image reactions before age two: Note1.
        The behavior of 88 children between 3 and 24 months was observed before a mirror, using an objective technique to examine the child's awareness of the image as his own. The results indicate the following age‐related sequence of behavior before the mirror: the first prolonged and repeated reaction of an infant to his mirror image is that of a sociable “playmate” from about 6 through 12 months of age. In the second year of life wariness and withdrawal appeared; self‐admiring and embarrassed behavior accompanied those avoidance behaviors starting at 14 months, and was shown by 75% of the subjects after 20 months of age. During the last part of the second year of life, from 20 to 24 months of age, 65% of the subjects demonstrated recognition of their mirror images.
    • The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness:
        The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
    • Gallup - Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition: Note2.
        After prolonged exposure to their reflected images in mirrors, chimpanzees marked with red dye showed evidence of being able to recognize their own reflections. Monkeys did not appear to have this capacity.
    • de Waal - The Thief in the Mirror: Frans De Waal.
      • No one has ever accused a magpie of being stupid. The bird belongs to the Corvidae, a worldwide family (also including crows, ravens, jackdaws, jays, and nutcrackers) marked by an exceptionally large forebrain, which permits innovative foraging. In recent years, this family has begun to pose a challenge to the idea that primates constitute the pinnacle of cognitive evolution3 by showing creative tool-use, visual perspective-taking, foresight, and so on.
      • The one cognitive accomplishment still missing, and therefore sometimes glossed over by corvid fans, is recognition of oneself in a mirror, a capacity found in only a handful of large-brained mammals. A great deal has been made of this capacity, including turning it into a touchstone for the legal concept of “personhood”.
    • de Waal - Fish, mirrors, and a gradualist perspective on self-awareness: Frans De Waal.
        The mirror mark test has encouraged a binary view of self-awareness according to which a few species possess this capacity whereas others do not. Given how evolution4 works, however, we need a more gradualist model of the various ways in which animals construe a self and respond to mirrors. The recent study on cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) by Kohda and colleagues highlights this need by presenting results that, due to ambiguous behavior and the use of physically irritating marks, fall short of mirror self-recognition. The study suggests an intermediate level of mirror understanding, closer to that of monkeys than hominids.
    • Haikonen - Reflections of Consciousness: The Mirror Test:
      • Humans and some animals are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. This ability has been taken as a demonstration of self-consciousness. Consequently, it has been proposed that the self-recognition in the mirror image, the mirror test, could also be used to determine the potential self-consciousness of cognitive machines.
      • It is shown that very simple machinery is able to pass the mirror test and consequently it is argued that the passing of the mirror test per se does not demonstrate the existence of self-consciousness. Next, the realization of more complex machinery that passes the mirror test and could be considered to possess self-consciousness is outlined.
    • Kohda, Etc - If a fish can pass the mark test, what are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals?:
        The ability to perceive and recognise a reflected mirror image as self (mirror self-recognition, MSR) is considered a hallmark of cognition across species. Although MSR has been reported in mammals and birds, it is not known to occur in any other major taxon. Potentially limiting our ability to test for MSR in other taxa is that the established assay, the mark test, requires that animals display contingency testing and self-directed behaviour. These behaviours may be difficult for humans to interpret in taxonomically divergent animals, especially those that lack the dexterity (or limbs) required to touch a mark. Here, we show that a fish, the cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus, shows behaviour that may reasonably be interpreted as passing through all phases of the mark test: (i) social reactions towards the reflection, (ii) repeated idiosyncratic behaviours towards the mirror, and (iii) frequent observation of their reflection. When subsequently provided with a coloured tag in a modified mark test, fish attempt to remove the mark by scraping their body in the presence of a mirror but show no response towards transparent marks or to coloured marks in the absence of a mirror. This remarkable finding presents a challenge to our interpretation of the mark test—do we accept that these behavioural responses, which are taken as evidence of self-recognition in other species during the mark test, lead to the conclusion that fish are self-aware? Or do we rather decide that these behavioural patterns have a basis in a cognitive process other than self-recognition and that fish do not pass the mark test? If the former, what does this mean for our understanding of animal intelligence5? If the latter, what does this mean for our application and interpretation of the mark test as a metric for animal cognitive abilities?
    • Gallup & Povinelli - Can Animals Empathise?: Note6.
      • Gordon G. Gallup: Yes - Animals that pass the mirror test are self-aware and thus can infer the states of mind of another individual.
      • Daniel Povinelli: Maybe Not – Even though chimpanzees pass the mirror test, they do not seem to conceive of others’ — or even their own — mental states.
    • Reiss & Marino - Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence:
        The ability to recognize oneself in a mirror is an exceedingly rare capacity in the animal kingdom. To date, only humans and great apes have shown convincing evidence of mirror self-recognition. Two dolphins were exposed to reflective surfaces, and both demonstrated responses consistent with the use of the mirror to investigate marked parts of the body. This ability to use a mirror to inspect parts of the body is a striking example of evolutionary7 convergence with great apes and humans.
    • Morell - Asian Elephants Are Social Networkers: Virginia Morell.
      • Asian elephants have long been considered somewhat antisocial. Instead of living in large, tightly knit herds, as do female elephants on the African savanna, those in Asia were thought to have only small groups of friends and few outside connections. But a new study shows that many female Asian elephants are more like social butterflies, with numerous pals. And they're able to maintain strong friendships even with those they have not seen in a year or more.
      • The study adds Asian elephants to a short list of other species, including dolphins, that are able to maintain complex social relationships despite not having daily contact, an ability regarded as being cognitively demanding.
    • Plotnik, de Waal & Reiss - Self-recognition in an Asian elephant: Frans De Waal.
        Considered an indicator of self-awareness, mirror self-recognition (MSR) has long seemed limited to humans and apes. In both phylogeny and human ontogeny, MSR is thought to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior. Apart from humans and apes, dolphins and elephants are also known for such capacities. After the recent discovery of MSR in dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), elephants thus were the next logical candidate species. We exposed three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) to a large mirror to investigate their responses. Animals that possess MSR typically progress through four stages of behavior when facing a mirror: (i) social responses, (ii) physical inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior, and (iv) realization of seeing themselves. Visible marks and invisible sham-marks were applied to the elephants' heads to test whether they would pass the litmus “mark test” for MSR in which an individual spontaneously uses a mirror to touch an otherwise imperceptible mark on its own body. Here, we report a successful MSR elephant study and report striking parallels in the progression of responses to mirrors among apes, dolphins, and elephants. These parallels suggest convergent cognitive evolution8 most likely related to complex sociality and cooperation.
    • Allen - Mirror self-recognition in a gorilla: Note9.
        Psychologists have studied self-recognition in human infants as an indication of self-knowledge (Amsterdam, 1972) and the development of abstract thought processes. Gallup (1970) modified the mark test used in human infant work to examine if nonhuman primates showed similar evidence of mirror self-recognition. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and orangutans (Pongo pygmnaeus) pass the mirror self-recognition test with limited mirror training or exposure. Other species of primates, such as gorillas and monkeys, have not passed the mirror test, despite extensive mirror exposure and training (Gallup, 1979). This project examined a gorilla (G. gorilla gorilla) named Otto in the traditional mark test. Using the modified mark-test, there were more incidents of touching the marked area while Otto was in front of the mirror than when he was not in front of the mirror. These results indicated that Otto was able to show some evidence of self-awareness.
    • Prior, Schwarz & Gunturkun - Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition:
        Comparative studies suggest that at least some bird species have evolved mental skills similar to those found in humans and apes. This is indicated by feats such as tool use, episodic-like memory, and the ability to use one's own experience in predicting the behavior of conspecifics. It is, however, not yet clear whether these skills are accompanied by an understanding of the self. In apes, self-directed behavior in response to a mirror has been taken as evidence of self-recognition. We investigated mirror-induced behavior in the magpie, a songbird species from the crow family. As in apes, some individuals behaved in front of the mirror as if they were testing behavioral contingencies. When provided with a mark, magpies showed spontaneous mark-directed behavior. Our findings provide the first evidence of mirror self-recognition in a non-mammalian species. They suggest that essential components of human self-recognition have evolved independently in different vertebrate classes with a separate evolutionary10 history.
    • Broesch, Etc - Cultural Variations in Children’s Mirror Self-Recognition: Note11.
        Western children first show signs of mirror self-recognition (MSR) from 18 to 24 months of age, the benchmark index of emerging self-concept. Such signs include self-oriented behaviors while looking at the mirror to touch or remove a mark surreptitiously placed on the child’s face. The authors attempted to replicate this finding across cultures using a simplified version of the classic “mark test.” In Experiment 1, Kenyan children (N = 82, 18 to 72 months old) display a pronounced absence of spontaneous self-oriented behaviors toward the mark. In Experiment 2, the authors tested children in Fiji, Saint Lucia, Grenada, and Peru (N = 133, 36 to 55 months old), as well as children from urban United States and rural Canada. As expected from existing reports, a majority of the Canadian and American children demonstrate spontaneous self-oriented behaviors toward the mark. However, markedly fewer children from the non-Western rural sites demonstrate such behaviors. These results suggest that there are profound cross-cultural differences in the meaning of the MSR test, questioning the validity of the mark test as a universal index of self-concept in children’s development.
    • Suddendorf, Etc - Visual self-recognition in mirrors and live videos: Evidence for a developmental asynchrony: Note12=11.
        Three experiments (N=123) investigated the development of live-video self-recognition using the traditional mark test. In Experiment 1, 24-, 30- and 36-month-old children saw a live video image of equal size and orientation as a control group saw in a mirror. The video version of the test was more difficult than the mirror version with only the oldest children's performance approaching ceiling. In Experiment 2, most 24-month-olds showed self-recognition when presented with a TV-set that featured a mirror in place of a screen. This finding does not substantiate the possibility that expectations about what appears on TV are responsible for the asynchrony. In Experiment 3, children were given a mark-test involving only their legs. Again, a video version was more difficult than previously reported performance with mirrors, suggesting that the impossibility of eye-contact in video cannot explain this developmental asynchrony. The findings suggest that self-recognition can be added to the growing list of contexts in which 2-year-olds display what has been called a "video deficit" [Anderson, D. R., & Pempek, T. A. (2005). Television and very young children. American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 505-532].


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 6: Footnote 9: Footnotes 11, 12:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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