Mirror Test

Bouillabes by Vimar

The mirror test is a measure of self-awareness, as animals either possess or lack the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. The test was developed by Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970, based in part on observations made by Charles Darwin. While visiting a zoo, Darwin held a mirror up to an orangutan and recorded the animal’s reaction, which included making a series of facial expressions.

Darwin noted that the significance of these expressions was ambiguous, and could either signify that the primate was making expressions at what it perceived to be another animal, or it could be playing a sort of game with a new toy.

Gallup reenacted Darwin’s initial experiment with two male and two female wild preadolescent chimpanzees, who had presumably never come into contact with mirrors or reflective surfaces. First each chimpanzee was put into a room by itself for two days. Next a full length mirror was placed in the room for a total of 80 hours in variant distances from the cage – starting farther away and moving closer. A multitude of behaviors were recorded upon introducing the mirrors to these wild chimpanzees. At first the chimpanzees made threatening gestures at their own images, they saw their own reflection as a threat. However after some time the chimpanzees used their own projected images for self directed responding – such as grooming parts of the body before unseen without a mirror, picking their noses, making faces, and blowing bubbles at their own reflections. To even further his findings of self recognition in chimpanzees, Gallup postulated another component to the experiment – manipulating the chimpanzee’s appearance and observing the reaction.

Gallup built on these observations by devising a test that attempts to gauge self-awareness by determining whether an animal can recognize its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself. This is accomplished by surreptitiously marking the animal with two odorless dye spots. The test spot is on a part of the animal that would be visible in front of a mirror, while the control spot is in an accessible but hidden part of the animal’s body. Scientists observe that the animal reacts in a manner consistent with it being aware that the test dye is located on its own body while ignoring the control dye. Such behavior includes turning and adjusting of the body in order to better view the marking in the mirror, or poking at the marking on its own body with a limb while viewing the mirror.

At first, even animals that are capable of passing the mirror test respond as the orangutan described by Darwin. Also young children and people who have been blind from birth but have their sight restored, initially react as if their reflection in the mirror was another person.

Animals that have passed the mirror test include: humans, apes, bonobos, chimps, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins, orcas, elephants, and European magpies.

Humans tend to fail the mirror test until they are about 18 months old, or what psychoanalysts call the ‘mirror stage.’ The rouge test is a self-recognition test that identifies a human child’s ability to recognize a reflection in a mirror as his or her own. Using rouge makeup, an experimenter surreptitiously places a dot on the nose and/or face of the child. The child is then placed in front of a mirror and their reactions are monitored; depending on the child’s development, distinct categories of responses are demonstrated. From the age of 18 months, the child simply sees a ‘sociable playmate’ in the mirror’s reflection. Self-admiring and embarrassment begin at 12 months, and at 14 to 20 months most children demonstrate avoidance behaviors. By 18 months half of all children recognize the reflection in the mirror as their own, and by 28 to 40 months all do. Children do so by evincing mark-directed behavior; they touch their own nose and/or try to wipe the mark off.

There is some debate as to the value and interpretation of results of the mirror test. While this test has been extensively conducted on primates, there is debate as to the value of the test as applied to animals who rely primarily on senses other than vision. Adaptations of the mirror test have been made in other modalities, such as scent. For instance, biologist Marc Bekoff developed a paradigm using dog urine for testing self-awareness in canines.

Some claim that the mirror test only demonstrates that some animals possess a particular cognitive capacity for modeling their environment, but not for the presence of phenomenal consciousness per se. Granting consciousness to animals might require demonstrations of thought-directed self-awareness, such as metacognition. Critics, such as philosopher Stuart Smith, maintain that it does not establish the existence of self-awareness of an independent character in animals whose self-awareness is solely a product of external experience

Furthermore, even visually oriented creatures may not be familiar enough with mirrors to pass the test, or may not be motivated to touch a mark on their forehead for any number of reasons. Thus, Gallup’s mirror test has been criticized as logically invalid because negative results are uninterpretable. Prosopagnosiacs, (patients suffering from ‘face blindness’) for example, may fail the test despite having the ability to report self awareness.

The main problem with the classic mirror test is that it assumes that children will recognize the dot of rouge and in recognizing that it’s not normal, try to get rid of it. Asendorpf et al. (1996) found evidence against this. They found that the classic mirror test produced false negatives because the child’s recognition of the dot did not lead to them cleaning it. Therefore, the researchers have assumed that the children may not have developed self-recognition skills yet.

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