I've been reading about the Mirror Test for a few years now and I've always found it exciting and fascinating. The test seeks to prove whether an animal recognizes itself, which is thought to prove that the creature has self awareness - one of the higher levels of intelligence. Many pet owners have introduced a new puppy, kitten or bird to a dresser mirror and enjoyed the animal's antics as it first tried to attack the image and then tried looking behind the mirror to see where the interloper is. So we're all at least a little bit familiar with the concept. Scientists have taken this experiment one step further.
The Mirror Test works like this: they introduce an animal, for example let's say a gorilla, to a mirror, let it explore what it sees and get very comfortable with it. Then while the animal is sedated, they'll paint a dot of color on his face. The animal can't see this dot except when he looks into the mirror. They instantly saw that when the gorilla awoke and examined himself in the mirror he touched - not the dot on the mirror - but the dot on his own face! Aha! He recognizes that the mirror is showing himself and not another gorilla and furthermore, he recognizes that he looks different.
Scientists have been performing this experiment with a wide range of species: elephants, several different primates, dogs, dolphins. All of the species that we suspected had higher intelligence performed the same way with the Mirror Test.
In the chapter titled "Mirror Mirror" of his book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Carl Safina points out the flaw in this test. First he points out that there is a flaw in the definition. Professor Gordon Gallup who invented the Mirror Test in the 1970's defined self awareness as "the ability to contemplate the past, to project into the future and to speculate on what others are thinking". Safina correctly quips: Try finding that in a mirror!
Another definition of self-awareness is "the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment". Recognizing yourself in a mirror doesn't demonstrate that you understand that you're separate from the environment.
Safina describes something he witnessed to better illustrate self awareness: a predator attempting to catch prey; the prey evading being caught. If each had no self awareness, the predator likely wouldn't be so determined to catch his chosen prey that he makes multiple attempts and employ different strategies each time. Likewise, the prey animal wouldn't try so hard to take evasive maneuvers. Also a nursing mother clearly understands that her pups are not part of her body. Most of us would agree that seems pretty obvious; the die-hard Scientific Method people would scream "anecdote!"
Safina goes on to point out that all the Mirror Test proves is that the animal understands reflection. Very few species recognize themselves in a mirror. He also points out that some humans don't recognize themselves in a mirror! When first shown a mirror, New Guinea tribesmen reacted with terror.
He also points out that many animals shown mirrors may simply not care. For example, we strongly suspect that scent is more important to dogs than sight for understanding their world. The dog they see in the mirror has no scent, therefore it's not a concern. Same for a dog seen on the television. Also, hands up: who here has had their dog or cat (or bird) make eye contact with them through a dresser mirror, like it's just as mundane an object for the pet as it is for you? It's simply a matter of whether the animal (or human) has been exposed to this thing that reflects what you see. Animal behaviorists have been watching apes play with mirrors for decades, doing things like examining the insides of their mouths.
The Mirror Test also fails spectacularly in it's very definition when a species "fails" the test. For example, birds that peck the dot in the mirror are attacking what they think is another bird. Well, hello? It thinks that's another bird, therefore it knows "that's not me". Self awareness proven by a test failure!
Some species also do interesting things with the mirror once they realize that it's a reflection of themselves. They start examining various parts of their body. Dolphins love to pirouette, examining their tails and blowholes. They move around to watch their reflection copying the same movements. If given a small mirror that only shows a small part of their body, dolphins will back away from the mirror until they can see more.
So what the Mirror Test really proves is that some species understand reflection, which means they understand that the image represents themselves - a level of abstraction which only higher intelligence can accomplish! It does show evidence of intelligence, it just does not prove that animals have self awareness.
I'll discuss some other wonderful topics presented in Safina's book in future articles. It's a wonderful (also heartbreaking and joyful by turns) book that I very much recommend.