How can self-awareness be measured?

I have often thought that there was a problem with the measurement of self-awareness in animals. For some time self-awareness has been identified with self-recognition and self-recognition with the mirror test.


So far the mirror recognition test has been passed by humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins, oras, elephants and magpies. It has sort of, maybe, been passed by some other birds and monkeys. We cannot believe that only those animals are self-aware. Where are the dogs, big cats and similar? Watch a pair of sheep dogs work sheep; watch a group of lions take their roles in an ambush; can that behavior happen without self-awareness? How do octopuses know when their camouflage is a perfect match for their environment? And why do Kenyan children fail the mirror test and American children pass it at the same age? The problem is that the mirror test needs more that self-recognition.


First the animal needs to understand the concept of reflection and that the mirror is giving a reflection and it is of themselves; second they have to behave in a way that shows that they know they have seen themselves (find and try to remove a mark on their bodies). It will not do if the animal has some other interpretation of the mirror’s image or some other reaction to it. What if they reject the image because it doesn’t smell right? What if the whole procedure frightens them? What if they refuse to look at the image? What if they do not see the mark as unusual? What if they don’t care if they have a mark on their body?


Why is self-recognition needed for self-awareness? Couchman (see citation below) looked at self-awareness in rhesus monkeys using a sense of self-agency instead of self-recognition.

Of the many species that fail the mirror self-recognition task, rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) are particularly interesting because their failures are probably not owing to cognitive factors, but rather social tendencies to make threat gestures towards any monkey image. … In all of these tasks (testing metacognition), rhesus monkeys know what they know and what they do not know, suggesting that they have some awareness of their own mental states. … one potential way to resolve the conflicting results in mirror self-recognition and uncertainty-monitoring is to create a task in which subjects are asked to identify their own self-generated actions. Such a task would tap the cognitive and sensorimotor cues involved in self-monitoring, self-agency and self-awareness, while eliminating distracting self-images. The current task asks humans and monkeys, for the first time, to distinguish between self-controlled and partially directionally reversed (distractor) cursors that are equally perceptually salient. If monkeys have any sense of self-agency, they ought to be able to distinguish self-generated from partially altered actions.


By these other tests rather than the mirror test, rhesus monkeys show themselves to be self-aware. So the mirror test should not be the gold standard of self-awareness – it is not the one and only test.


Here is the abstract:

Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) have shown the ability to monitor their own mental states, but fail the mirror self-recognition test. In humans, the sense of self-agency is closely related to self-awareness, and results from monitoring the relationship between intentional, sensorimotor and perceptual information. Humans and rhesus monkeys were trained to move a computer icon with a joystick while a distractor icon partially matched their movements. Both humans and monkeys were able to monitor and identify the icon they were controlling, suggesting they have some understanding of self-agency.

Justin J. Couchman (2012). Self-agency in rhesus monkeys Biol. Lett. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0535

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