My pet labrador’s favourite play of the day is to stand in front of the mirror and look at himself. What’s amusing is the way he always tries to look behind or beyond the mirror and sometimes even threaten the ‘dog’ he is face to face with, with a growl. I know, he is very smart and very intelligent, but recognising himself and identifying the reflection in the mirror as his own, is something he cannot figure out.
The mirror self-recognition test, since its inception in the 1970s has been considered to be the “gold standard” of determining whether or not a creature possesses self-awareness. Elephants, chimpanzees, and dolphins are among the creatures who have passed, suggesting that these animals have a sense of self. But plenty of other primates, along with highly intelligent creatures like octopuses, and dogs are either confused by or totally uninterested in the mirror. Question is, does that make them less intelligent? Or should there be another way to determine this self awareness?
Joshua Plotnik, a visiting psychology professor at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and founder of the nonprofit Think Elephants International, has devised another approach to understand self awareness. This test that does not involve mirrors , when conducted with Asian Elephants recently proved, yet again, that an elephant is indeed a very smart and intelligent animal with a self awareness that even humans don’t have till the age of 2.
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Plotnik and a colleague, Rachel Dale, a graduate student at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna modified a test given to human babies to understand the level of self awareness in elephants.
Human babies between the age of 18 and 24 months can usually pass the mirror test by recognising their reflection. It is at the same time that they also become ‘body aware’ which means they can recognise that their body has a relationship with the surrounding environment. During the ‘body awareness’ test, a baby is asked to push a shopping cart towards a caregiver. The trick is, that there is a mat tied to the cart and the child is asked to stand on this mat. To successfully push the cart, the baby has to therefore understand that he/she has to step off from the mat or their own body weight will not allow the cart to move.
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Plotnik and Dale wrote in their report published in the journal Scientific Reports yesterday that elephants do something remarkably similar. “They have clearly recognized that their body can get in the way of something,” Plotnik said.
The researchers conducted a very similar experiment with 12 Asian elephants aged between 4 to 40. The elephants were instructed to pick a stick and hand it to their mahouts. The trick in this case was that the stick was tied to a rubber mat and the elephants were standing on it. In order to move the stick therefore, the pachyderm had to move over, away from the mat. The team saw that the elephants within minutes recognised the problem and lifted their foot from the mat to pick up the stick easily. When the same experiment was repeated with the stick not attached to the mat, the elephants simply moved to pick the stick without bothering to step off from the mat.
Plotnik says that this demonstration by the elephants is a very complex act because if the animal was not self aware or body aware it would have kept on trying to pull the stick while standing on the mat or simply given up.
He argues that the mirror test may not be the only way to interpret an animal’s self awareness judgement as most animals do not use vision as their primary sense and rely on ears or smell too.
“I’m not sure that this test is nearly as complex as the mirror test,” Plotnik said. But, taken together with the mirror test, the stick experiment added “another point to the spectrum of self-understanding” for elephants.
Read the study here.