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I Groom, Therefore I Am

October 1, 2010

Rheanna Sand

 

One of the most isolating conundrums of humanity is our extreme self-awareness. We know what we are, and thanks to Body Worlds, we have witnessed more tendrils of muscle and blood vessel than we ever wanted to. But are we the only creatures gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a sense of self?

The short answer is no, we are not. Many other animals display evidence of self-awareness; not surprisingly, our close relatives, the chimpanzees and orangutans, but also elephants, dolphins, and magpies - the same animals that have displayed tool use in other studies.

One animal that has not been considered self-aware was the rhesus monkey, or macaque, a common laboratory primate. This species, as well as most other monkeys, do not pass what is called the "mark test," a standard way of assessing this quality. In this test, the animal is anaesthetized and a visible facial mark is left. When the animal wakes, it is given a mirror, and if the animal touches the mark, it's proof the animal knows it is seeing its own reflection.

Rhesus monkeys consistently fail the mark test. They inspect themselves in the mirror but leave the mark alone. But, in a recent study from the University of Wisconsin, Abigail Rajala and colleagues noticed that monkeys given a rather conspicuous electrophysiology head implant did check themselves out in the mirror in a way that suggests, at least from looking at the pictures and watching the movies, that these animals are self-aware. They moved the mirror around to get a better look, and more importantly, they started looking at areas of their body that they couldn't see without the mirror.

 

Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand


I know what you're thinking… a research paper on monkeys looking at their junk? Yes! And what an enlightening study it is. The authors figure that the monkeys needed a bigger stimulus than a painted mark, like a cumbersome head implant, to start paying attention. Also, rhesus monkeys rely less on vision and more on sound and smell, so a test based on visual acuity is not the best one to give. It would be like getting a quiz printed in ultraviolet ink - you might look like an dumbass, when really, you barely perceive the questions.

Ultimately, studies like these support the adage that to get the right answers, you absolutely must ask the right questions.

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