Self-perception

Seeing yourself in the mirror. Se regarder. Non seulement se regarder, mais se voir. Voila le test d’une intelligence digne de notre respect.

A science lab has just found out that rhesus monkeys can see themselves in the mirror. Traditionally, this mirror test has been a big way to measure the intelligence of animals. If you paint a dot on your cat’s forehead, or put a tiny sticker under a bird’s beak, and the animal is put in front of a mirror, it will not always connect the image to its body and decide to clean itself or remove the sticker.

In the standard mark test, a harmless mark is put on the animal’s face, where it can only be seen in a mirror. If the animal stares at the mirror and touches the mark, it is said to be self-aware: It knows that the mirror shows its own reflection, not that of another animal. (Animals that lack self-awareness may, for example, search for the “invading” animal behind the mirror.)

How much this proves if up for debate. Some think it demonstrates a certain level of consciousness, since the animal is self-aware in some way. Critics argue that it doesn’t necessarily prove anything more than a spatial awareness and the ability to connect the image to the reflected world.

It occurs to me that this test is very anthrocentric in its emphasis of the visual field. For animals with such a developed sense of smell, doesn’t visual recognition take a very different, and less important role?

For 40 years, scientists have concluded from this type of behavior that a few species are self-aware — they recognize the boundaries between themselves and the physical world. Because chimps, our closest relatives, pass the test, while almost all other primate species fail it, scientists began to discuss a “cognitive divide” between the highest primates and the rest.

But now it turns out that monkeys, as well as chimps, can pass this test. A researcher at a lab wanting to study ADD had stuck “implants” into the monkey’s heads. That is, pencil-sized apparatuses for taking readings from the brain. In previous mirror tests, the monkeys “failed” categorically because they react to the mirror image as they would to the presence of another monkey. But it turns out that with giant things sticking out of their heads, which presumably disrupt the immediate social reaction, the monkeys take a bit more time to figure things out, and “find themselves.”

“This report makes a unique contribution to our views about primate self-awareness because the ‘mirror test’ has been the traditional gold standard for determining if a person and/or animal met a criterion for having a sense of self.”

So if these animals are now shown to have a “sense of self,” then the only obvious question in their minds are: why the f*** did someone stick these things in my head?

And lo and behold, we notice that in paper’s  images, they have censored that little bit of unpleasantness.

There are little black boxes sticking out, like an FBI censor job, what they don’t want us to see: these metal thingamajigs rammed into the skulls of living, sentient, intelligent beings. Isn’t it rather ironic that the very report explaining the newly discovered self-awareness of these animals also depicts (and censors) their deliberate torture?

From the study, and perhaps the saddest part:

Unequivocally more revealing was that they attempted to pull the head post off their heads while looking in the mirror, a behavior that subsided after a few attempts and was not observed again.

For anyone interested in the animal liberation debate, Peter Singer’s pathbreaking essay is rich and compelling. He mainly argues that the grounds for inferring that more developed animals feel pain are about as good as they are for humans, and that there is hardly an ethical argument that will stand up for the willful causing of pain to other beings that experience it similarly to how we do.

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