Nemo the Narcissist

Usually it’s considered vain to pose in front of the mirror, but in the world of animal psychology such posturing provides an insight into the mind. Self-awareness is often thought to be limited to the upper echelons of the animal kingdom: humans and some great apes. However, this (frankly self-absorbed) idea of only life most similar to us being intelligent has potentially been overturned by a study demonstrating that cleaner wrasse, a type of fish, demonstrate self-recognition in the mirror test – potentially suggesting self-awareness as well.

To be self-aware is to acknowledge your mental state and to understand how your body interacts with its environment while self-recognition is simply the latter. Human babies take anywhere from 18 – 24 months to be able to recognise themselves in a mirror and this learning process was observed in the wrasse, which initially tried to fight their reflection and then switched to a series of strange behaviours. The wrasse were observed racing up to the mirror and stopping abruptly as well as swimming upside down. As a behaviour many researchers had never seen before, this was considered a demonstration that the fish were learning to manipulate their reflection.

The mirror test is often used to try and demonstrate self-awareness through the individual observing itself in a mirror and scientists seeing how they react to marks administered to their skin. In the case of the wrasse, this involved a harmless coloured injection which turned the skin brown. When marked, they angled themselves with the mark facing the mirror and subsequently scratched the marked area, assuming it was a parasite, and then returning to the mirror to see whether it was removed.

Although this behaviour seems to fairly clearly demonstrate self-recognition at least, Gordon G. Gallup, the inventor of the mirror test, is not convinced by their findings. He posits that these behaviours arise from the fact that the wrasse clean other fish and their actions can be interpreted as attempted communication with their reflection as though it were another fish. However, many other researchers in the field are satisfied with the results and this isn’t the first time that Gallup has shown great doubt at a positive mirror test result. The first fish which tested positive was the manta ray, known by divers to have a highly inquisitive disposition, akin to dolphins. Dolphins themselves have tested positive as well as magpies and elephants but Gallup still asserts that only humans, chimpanzees and orang-utans have truly tested positively.

This could be influenced by the widely held belief that most non-human animals are dumb beasts. However, many animals are intelligent in a way we are only just beginning to understand. Prairie dogs have a complex language which describes potential attackers to their group using a wide range of adjectives; mice feel empathy and will stop pressing a button which delivers a treat if they can see their actions causing an electric shock to another mouse; and there is some evidence that honeybees can suffer from depression. With all this in mind, is it truly surprising that some animals could learn to recognise themselves in a mirror? We often underestimate what our fellow creatures are capable of, but this shouldn’t prevent their potential from being realised.

As far as self-awareness goes, it is difficult to say whether a positive result of the mirror test could ever truly demonstrate self-awareness. Recognising your body in the mirror does not necessarily suggest that you recognise your own existence and we can’t just ask the animals about their experience. Although this research is far from conclusive, the public should be prepared to open their minds to the distinct possibility of the self-awareness club becoming much less exclusive in the future.

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