Rhesus monkeys have a form of self awareness not previously attributed to them

Jul 05, 2011
Cognitive psychologist Justin Couchman is seen here with Murph, one of the rhesus monkeys who helped Couchman demonstrate that his species does indeed possess a form of self awareness. Credit: University at Buffalo

In the first study of its kind in an animal species that has not passed a critical test of self-recognition, cognitive psychologist Justin J. Couchman of the University at Buffalo has demonstrated that rhesus monkeys have a sense of self-agency -- the ability to understand that they are the cause of certain actions -- and possess a form of self awareness previously not attributed to them.

The study, which will be published July 6 in Biology Letters, a journal of the Royal Society, may illuminate apparent self-awareness deficits in humans with autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease and .

are one of the best-known species of Old World monkeys, and have been used extensively in medical and biological research aimed at creating vaccines for rabies, smallpox and polio and drugs to manage HIV/AIDS; analyzing stem cells and sequencing the genome. Humans have sent them into space, cloned them and planted jellyfish genes in them.

Couchman, a PhD candidate at UB, is an instructor at UB and at the State University of New York College at Fredonia. He points out that previous research has shown that rhesus monkeys, like apes and dolphins, have metacognition, or the ability to monitor their own mental states. Nevertheless, the monkeys consistently fail the mirror self-recognition test, which assesses whether animals can recognize themselves in a mirror, and this is an important measure self-awareness.

"We know that in humans, the sense of self-agency is closely related to self-awareness," Couchman says, "and that it results from monitoring the relationship between pieces of intentional, sensorimotor and perceptual information.

"Based on previous findings in comparative metacognition research, we thought that even though they fail the mirror test, rhesus monkeys might have some other form of self-awareness. In this study we looked at whether the monkeys have a sense of self agency, that is, the understanding that some actions are the consequence of their own intentions."

For the study, Couchman trained 40 UB undergraduates and four male rhesus monkeys, housed in the Language Research Center of Georgia State University, to move a computer cursor with a joystick while a distractor cursor partially matched their movements. After moving the cursor, both humans and monkeys were asked to identify the computer cursor that they controlled -- the one that matched their movements and intentions. Both species were able to select the cursor they controlled from an array of choices, including the distractor cursor, at greater than chance levels.

"This suggests that the monkeys, like humans, have some understanding of self agency," says Couchman. "This awareness or implicit sense that it is 'me' who is presently executing a bodily movement or thinking thoughts is an important form of self-awareness."

Couchman says that because this is the first such demonstration of self-agency in a species that has not passed the mirror self-recognition test, the results may shed light on apparent self-awareness deficits in humans.

"Mirror self-recognition is developmentally delayed in autistic children and absent in many who are mentally retarded, have Alzheimer's disease or are schizophrenic. It is not clear why this deficit occurs, but like rhesus monkeys," he says, "these groups may simply have biases against mirrors.

"If, when studied, such individuals attempted to distinguish self-generated actions from partially altered actions in the paradigm reported in this study," Couchman say, "it might offer information as to whether the breakdown in their mirror self-recognition is due to a difficulty in processing certain kinds of perceptual or cognitive information."

Decades of psychological research has established that the concept of agency implies an active organism, one who desires, makes plans and carries out actions. The sense of agency and its scientific study is significant in the study of social cognition, moral reasoning and psychopathology because of its implications for intention, consciousness, responsibility, desire and development.

"Self agency also plays a pivotal role in cognitive development," Couchman says.

"It is linked to metacognition, the first stages of self-awareness and theory of mind (understanding the mental states of others). These abilities give humans the sense that they are entities separate from the external world, and allow them to interact with other agents and the environment in intelligent ways. If rhesus monkeys are able to recognize themselves as agents that cause certain actions," he says, "then they probably have a similar understanding that they are entities independent from the environment."

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unknownorgin
3.4 / 5 (9) Jul 05, 2011
Parakeets will play with the bird in the mirror and some fish will attack the other fish in the mirror but a dog or other larger brain animal will ignore the mirror perhaps because they know it is just a reflection because of expiriance with pools of water. Perhaps human standards of reaction to a mirror apply only to humans.
epsi00
3.3 / 5 (6) Jul 06, 2011
Experiments with mirrors have no scientific values. Animals in general don't care about mirrors, it's alien to them. Until a better experiment is designed we can't conclude anything about consciousness in animals. My own opinion is that animals in general ( those with complex brains ) are self-aware. Just look at your dog or cat or what not.
Guy_Underbridge
2.5 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2011
Self-aware or not, those chocolate & peanut butter things they make are great.
gwrede
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 06, 2011
This is not meant as an insult, but I think psychology as a science knows even less than economics. Maybe the human mind studying the human mind doesn't see the forest for the trees.

While physics, medicine and especially mathematics can be proud of their state of the art, psycology is at the stone age. This is especially unfortunate now that society is becoming unlivable by the humans in it, as seen from the skyrocketing sales of antidepressants and other drugs of the mind -- and suicide and homicide rates.
Kafpauzo
4.2 / 5 (5) Jul 06, 2011
The mirror test is deeply flawed.

Animals like my two cats would fail the test, because they ignore the mirror image completely. And yet, their lack of interest shows clearly that they know that the mirror image is not some other cat.

They'll communicate with any cat except the one in the mirror. When they meet each other, they always greet each other, either by smelling each other or by lifting their tails in greeting. If I bring in an unknown cat from outside, they'll hiss and threaten aggressively. The cat in the mirror is the only exception.

What's more, the mirror test checks for far more than just self-awareness. It requires several steps of abstract reasoning to understand that a viewed image can represent oneself, that the spot on the forehead may be present not only on the image but also on oneself, that the spot represents a change from one's previous appearance, that removing the spot may be interesting or desirable, that removing the spot may be possible, and so on.
Kafpauzo
2 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2011
Oh, and there's one more problem with the mirror test for self-awareness. It doesn't check for self-awareness.

Consider a different test. In front of a mirror you place an animal to be tested, then a wall, then a sibling, friend or doll with a spot on its forehead. The tested animal can see the sibling, friend or doll through the mirror, but not through the wall.

Suppose that when you've set this up, the tested animal reaches behind the wall to touch the spot on the companion's forehead.

Clearly this does not prove self-awareness, since the animal isn't turning its attention toward itself. It also doesn't prove awareness of otherness, i.e. awareness that companions are similar to self, since the companion can be a doll.

All it proves is awareness that a spot that is seen in a mirror may be reachable by touching a real spot, rather than its mirror image. That's certainly a very interesting observation, but it says practically nothing about self-awareness or awareness of otherness.
gwrede
1.5 / 5 (4) Jul 06, 2011
I once stopped at a mall so I could observe people in an elevator with a large mirror. Almost all of the women at least glanced at themselves in the mirror, and most of them touched their hair or face or clothing.

Less than a tenth of the men paid any attention to the mirror or their reflection there.

Seems cognitive psychology scientists work in a place without public mirrors.
knikiy
5 / 5 (2) Jul 06, 2011
After moving the cursor, both humans and monkeys were asked to identify the computer cursor that they controlled -- the one that matched their movements and intentions.


Hmm, I wonder how the monkeys were asked that question?
Husky
1 / 5 (1) Jul 06, 2011
do they spank the monkey
thales
2 / 5 (1) Jul 06, 2011
What is it that separates us from the animals, again?
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (3) Jul 06, 2011
They could have laid out several outfits for the monkeys to try on.
zeplinair
2 / 5 (1) Jul 07, 2011
A problem with the mirror self-recognition test is it is anthro-expectant. We are socially and visually oriented to the face-it matters to us like few, if any, other species. Our visual acuity is also greater than most other mammalian species. However, I am not seeing mention of the recent surendipity of other experiments, that installed monitoring equipment on the heads of monkeys (for a different purpose) that resulted in mirror self recognition type behavior in front of the mirrors placed in the cages for the monkeys' amusement. The researchers hypothesis for this is "super stimuli" (I'll call it a clue x 4) is drawing the relevant attention. I am also thinking of an experiment were the researcher hypothesized that altering a species conspicuous identifying feature, in this case, dyeing the cotton top of cotton top monkeys, would be relevant to the individuals and would result (as it did) in mirror self-recognition behavior. The current small mark test is inappropriate.
hush1
1 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2011
lol

"This is not meant as an insult, but I think psychology as a science knows even less than economics...Forest, ...trees." - gwrede

"While physics, medicine and especially mathematics can be proud of their state of the art, psycology is at the stone age." - gwrede

lol. True.
You try telling anyone you are as simply as we say you are.
And you will be accused of being stone aged.

No insult. We just can't convince anyone that nothing you do will surprise us. We will always offer you help (that never works.) That's called self employment. :)
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jul 11, 2011
The mirror test is deeply flawed.

Animals like my two cats would fail the test, because they ignore the mirror image completely. And yet, their lack of interest shows clearly that they know that the mirror image is not some other cat.


That might just mean the cats don't care. A cat knows the difference at least between a picture of itself and a mirror image. It knows it sees a real cat in the mirror as opposed to looking at a photo of itself. Some cats are smart enough to realize they aren't looking at another cat, check this video, he not only sees himself, but looks at the objects he recognizes( from the room ) in the reflection, then checks the edge of the mirror. Can it fathom a mirror ? Idk, but it for sure doesn't think it sees another cat.

http://www.youtub...=related
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2011
I once stopped at a mall so I could observe people in an elevator with a large mirror. Almost all of the women at least glanced at themselves in the mirror, and most of them touched their hair or face or clothing.

Less than a tenth of the men paid any attention to the mirror or their reflection there.

Seems cognitive psychology scientists work in a place without public mirrors.
And if men wore makeup and fancy hairdoos like gene simmons they would be checking themselves out more. So what?

-This story reminds of this very strange one:
http://www.dailym...era.html

-Those pics are eerie.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jul 12, 2011
I once stopped at a mall so I could observe people in an elevator with a large mirror. Almost all of the women at least glanced at themselves in the mirror, and most of them touched their hair or face or clothing.

Less than a tenth of the men paid any attention to the mirror or their reflection there.

Seems cognitive psychology scientists work in a place without public mirrors.
And if men wore makeup and fancy hairdoos like gene simmons they would be checking themselves out more. So what?

-This story reminds of this very strange one:
http://www.dailym...era.html

-Those pics are eerie.


Nice find.

That could be developed into an interesting set of experiments, if it hasn't already been done.