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Published on August 4th, 2009 | by Michael Ricciardi

20

Elephants Pass Self-Awareness Test

Elephant training camp (somewhere in Central Asia)

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It was called the “red mark test”, or just the “mark test”, and it was first tried out on a Gorilla over two decades ago. Scientists applied a smudge of red powder to the forehead of a sleeping gorilla, then placed a large viewing mirror close by, and waited for the ape to awaken. To the surprise of all, after the gorilla first noticed its reflection (and reacted to it as a social response), it then began to recognize that it was looking at itself, somehow, and, noticing the smudge over its eyes, immediately began trying to wipe it off. Later, the gorilla would use the mirror to groom itself and even examine parts of its body.

The test is now referred to as mirror self recognition (MSR). The test indicates self-awareness of a higher, and formerly, distinctly human level. The test is also thought to correlate to higher brain behaviors such as empathy and altruism.

Most every animal in nature, when confronted with a mirror, will interpret the image therein as another animal, possibly a threat, and may attack the image, or, be scared away. After awhile, the animals habituate and ignore the reflected image entirely. But the gorilla–a “higher” ape–recognized the image as its own, a feat that require a degree of abstract thought and cognitive association.

Dolphins too recognize their image when confronted with a reflecting surface and have shown other remarkable abilities such as abstract reasoning (regarding object series recognition). and self-selected vocalizations with human trainers.

Now, we can add elephants to the very short list of animals besides humans with self-awareness.

Researchers (Plotnik, et al, reporting in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science ) working with Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at the Bronx zoo, conducted an MSR test. They applied “real” and “sham” marks to the rights sides of the pachyderms’ heads and waited to see how the elephants would respond to these when a large mirror was placed in their presence. Sure enough, the elephants demonstrated that they understood they were looking at themselves (and not another elephant) and begin touching the marks with their trunks. In all, their behavior during the MSR tests matched those of apes and dolphins. According to the paper’s authors: “These parallels suggest convergent cognitive evolution most likely related to complex sociality and cooperation. “

The intelligence of elephants has long been known (though tribal lore, and from field observations) and established. They have complex social lives and relations and do indeed have excellent memories. Also, a full grown male’s brain may weigh 14 pounds (the actual measure of “intelligence” is brains size to body mass ratio). It is believed that the size (relative to body size) and structure of our larger, more recently evolved brains enables higher states of conscious perception (such as self awareness). The animals tested here all possess large brains–some, like the dolphin and elephant, larger than our human ones. Each has a cerebral cortex (the outer-most layer of brain matter, known as the neomammalian brain), although this is quite small in the gorilla as compared to humans.

But we humans are not just self aware, we are aware that we are aware. We express this “higher” form of awareness primarily through speaking (e.g., Isn’t this a strange conversation that we’re having?) or through symbolic manipulation and recursion (e.g., “This statement is false.”) This is called meta-awareness*, and so far, it has not been found outside of our species.

* Author note (January, 2010): Meta-awareness seems, in large part, to be enabled by symbolic communication/language (spoken and written especially), and some would argue that if these other animals had such a mode of communication, they might also exhibit meta-awareness, This is a difficult “what if” to argue with, but I would note that meta-awareness can be expressed purely visually as well (through a visual device known as a Droste image (e.g., a picture of a person holding an identical picture of himself, which contains the identical image, and so on…), or the “Droste effect”, interpretation of which depends upon abstract, cognitive representation in the brain, and not the ability to write or speak in symbolic terms. If some clever scientists could figure out a way to present Droste type imagery to these animals, and then also figure out how to interpret/measure the animals’ awareness or understanding (or lack thereof) of what it is seeing, then maybe….

photo: Public Domain




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About the Author

Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles as well as essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, Arthur Shapiro, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website (http://www.chaosmosis.net). He is also the author of the (Kindle) ebook: Artful Survival ~ Creative Options for Chaotic Times



  • Mike

    Altruism is a specific belief about morality, not a “higher brain function”.

  • http://www.aquathought.com David

    Check your facts. The “mark” test with zinc-oxide and an underwater mirror has indeed been done with dolphins (Ken Martins, Sea Life Park) and repeated (Emory Univ.).

  • http://www.whatareyouwatching.uni.cc Television Spy

    Few things to note, the study is flawed as there are numerous creatures that are self-ware – including almost all primates (mirror test), cats, dogs, parrots and other birds, dolphins, whales..the list goes on despite what most may think.

    Animals are underestimated for the amount of awareness they have and their comprehension of this world. It’s safer and convenient for us to just assume that they are inferior to us in all things of cognition and awareness but this isn’t true.

    Also the pic you used of the elphants shows off the horrendous abuse of these creatures to help logging and timber interests. They’re still used as beats of burden to this day in areas like India and Thailand.

  • Law

    @Television Spy
    Dogs and cats are self-aware? How do you explain the countless number clips of dogs/cats attacking their own image on Youtube (search keywords: dog + mirror)?

    “used as beasts of burden”?? You realize how many people in the 3rd world countries still struggle for a living? I have faith that these people look after their elephants well enough for the elephants not to stomp them over.

  • Dave
  • http://geekmash.com garg

    We are also aware that we are aware that we are aware. :D

  • http://practicallyuseful.blogspot.com ade

    Well, the elephants do have the big brain, I guess.. how about the animal with the biggest brain in the world.. whale?

  • Christopher

    A mark test has been done on dolphins, and they are aware that the reflection is of them.

  • Speaker-to-Animals

    Re: meta-awareness (final paragraph of the article), this is a quality that would be very difficult to prove without a spoken language that can be understood by humans.

    The article mentions the weight of the brain as a distinguishing factor, but fails to mention the far more important factor of brain-to-body-mass ratio. Likewise for the surface-area-to-volume ratio of the cerebral cortext, which is more important than its size per se.

  • ryan

    @law
    as with humans, the degrees of sentience in animals is widely varying…

  • Evil Merodach

    Actual, very few animals have passed this test. Besides humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants, a few dogs have passed (most don’t), and I believe magpies! Sorry, no cats have ever passed this test.

  • MillerTime

    Television Spy.. you want some aloe for that burn?

  • http://www.mongabay.com ryan

    this test does not indicate much similarity in the level of self-recognition between elephants and humans. many animals exhibit the ability to recognize their own bodies or markings on it. it is not indicative of a human level of “self-awareness.”

    the level of self-awareness humans possess is based on their ability to create an imagined analog of the “self” in their reflective mindspace. humans use a relatively complex form of symbol manipulation (linguistics, culture) to do this. by holding on to a image of the self and “reality” in their reflective consciousness, humans are able to exhibit traits unlike any other organism – complex deceit, reflecting on the past in order to alter future behavior, and imaging the minds, thoughts, and feelings of other humans.

    chimps, for example, are capable of what psychologists refer to as instrumental deceit, or short-term deceit. the awareness for this (and the “self awareness” test in the elephants) are not based in subjective consciousness, but in instrumental learning responses – immediate rewards condition the behavioral reaction – there is no long term conception of the “self” at work.

    the study of consciousness in animals is fascinating -i highly recommend the work of Julian Jaynes as well as Dr. VS Ramachandran.

    “your conscious life, in short, is nothing but a post-hoc rationalization of things you do for other reasons.”
    - ramachandran

  • jp preteau

    i can ssure you that atleast my cat is self aware when put infront of a mirror she will just look at the mirror and move around while still looking at the mirror

  • Big Jerk

    The heft of the brain has little to do with its placement in the hierarchal pecking order. They (pachaderms) remain a wonderful circus animal and play a mean game of colonialist polo.

  • http://www.chaosmosis.net Michael Ricciardi

    Responses from the author:

    The one spelling error and one syntax error have been fixed (back to the forest…)

    Next: Thanks for the fact check on dolphins (re: smudge test); I removed the offending aside–but I will note that I did acknowledge that dolphins are able to recognize themselves, and, further, the smudge test as it was completed with apes/elephants, involved the touching and/or rubbing of the spot…something that the dolphins did/can not do.

    Yes, in my mention of brain size, to simplify things, I refer only to absolute brain size (note: I did make the correction and refer to ‘brain size to body mass ratio’)….that said, in GENERAL, brain size (total mass) IS indeed correlated with higher intelligence (as defined by humans).

    The fact that you pet attacks its image, is proof of my statement about most animals, not a refutation of it.

    Regarding the “self as post hoc rationalization” comment…but this is a definition OF the self, and proves self awareness, a priori. Dig it.

    In an earlier draft for this post, I did mention the role of symbolic language in aiding self-awareness (and its meta regressions), but removed it just to keep things from digressing near the end….This fact, though, of our language ability producing meta awareness, is possible through speech also, not simply written, symbolic language…and, regardless, it is a unique feature of a uniquely evolved behavior, which leads to other behaviors, etc…

    The picture of the elephants at the top of the post was chosen deliberately, as a bit of irony, so as to prompt the asking: Are the beasts aware that they are being exploited?

    The use of animals to aid human labor, or as parts of human cultural traditions is always a sticky wicket, ethically speaking…We might ask: is ALL training of animals by humans (for labor, sport, celebration or even as pets) unethical and cruel to the animal? If we answer ‘yes’ to this, then our ethical view of the world is rather simple, and that’s great. But if we answer ‘no’ to this, then we have to consider situational ethics, and special circumstances…and this does become a slippery slope…but it does acknowledge the shades of gray in considerations of ethical behavior/treatment between animal species (and this is a one-way relationship; it is not extended towards us by any other animal).

    The general ethical (meta) question is: If we adopt a superior moral/ethical attitude or relationship toward animals, does this, in fact, prove we are ethically superior?

    I don’t have the answer to that. It’s just a question.

    Cheers, MR

  • http://facebook J.E. Ante

    I know some humans that would fail this test.

  • http://n/a Sam Jarrett

    I would like to mention as clearly as i can that these tests are merely an asessment of whta we might expect could be a function that other species oflife have , and that we cannot fully explain or experience without accurate knowledge or experiences that would guide our developmental ideas. Science will continually say that emotions are received in the brain , and this may be so, or true, however; shouldn’t the emotions remain in the body ands wouldn’t this be harder to explain about an animal’s self awareness than to say that it has some cognitive function in it’s brain that allows it to THINK in terms of itself and what it sees as a natural course of life, that is, it’s self, being, animal, creature, IT.

  • Pingback: Humans are Perceiving Nature with a Higher Awareness | Peace and Loveism

  • Jeff

    So what?
    Humans are aware and murder their own children, or parents, or self or mutilate themselves with cuts, piercings, and tatoos.

    Is there a point?

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