BBC: The Secret You- What makes you "you" and can animals recognize themselves in the mirror?

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Have you ever wondered at what age does one gain a sense of self awareness? BBC Horizon's video "The Secret You" was a very interesting and fascinating video. I found the section where they talked about humans becoming self aware to be very interesting. So...when does one become self aware? A fascinating experiment at the University of Portsmouth indicates that it is between the ages of 18-24 months that a child's brain develops to a stage when it suddenly becomes conscious of itself as an individual.
Most of the evidence given in support to children becoming self aware is from the Mirror Self Recognition Test. In this test, a child is placed in front of a mirror and is given some time to look at the figure in the mirror. Once the interaction has been established, the carer (mother, father etc.) takes the child away from the mirror and while wiping its nose, the carer surreptitiously places a red dot (sticker) in the child's face. The child is then returned to play in the mirror.
In one case Owen, aged 16 months, engaged again with his image in the mirror but at no point was he particularly concerned that the image he saw had a large red dot on its face. In contrast when 22 month old Bethan saw her image in the mirror, her hand immediately shot up to her face as she explored the strange spot that she saw on her cheek. The strong reaction is an indication that Bethan recognizes the image and thinks "that's me".

Is it only humans that have a sense of "I"?
The Mirror Self Recognition Test was devised in the 70s by Professor Gordon Gallup. Originally he was looking to test consciousness not in children but animals. "One day I found found myself shaving in front of the mirror and it occurred to me: wouldn't it be interesting to see if chimpanzees could recognise themselves in mirrors". Indeed they do. So how many other animals pass this test for consciousness? It turns out that we are remarkably alone in the animal kingdom. In addition to chimpanzees only orangutans recognize themselves in the mirror. Of course if you ask most pet-owners they will probably argue vociferously that their dog, cat or hamster etc. is conscious. Failing the test does not mean that other animals are not self-aware-but a positive result is convincing evidence for a brain that has developed a sense of "me".

This video made me reflect to my childhood and think of when I became self aware. Of course I could not think of it but I am sure that I looked into plenty of mirrors thinking there was someone there.


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How do we know that children who don't reach for the sticker on their face don't recognize that they see themselves in the mirror. Clearly if they reach for their face, they know that they can see themselves, but not reaching for their face doesn't prove that they can't. This experiment, while interesting, doesn't seem to account for this. I'm not sure this claim is exactly falsifiable.

Very interesting blog. I'm curious, however, what the convincing evidence is that allows experimenters to decide whether or no an animal is aware of themselves, or if it takes time. I would suggest that part of humans self-awareness comes through training ourselves to identify who we are. So with a dog, can't one train the dog to be able to identify itself and then pass the test? I think there needs to be a little more research in that field in order to completely claim that only humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans are the only animals that can do that.

Along with what numem004 said, this experiment doesn't necessarily mean that the child has figured out that the person staring back at them is them, all they know is that they can pick the sticker off the face of the person in the mirror. Still, this is a very strong indicator that they are aware of themselves, this just doesn't prove it.

As noted by previous bloggers, I question whether the "red sticker" proves that a child is self-aware or not. Just because a child does not immediately react to the read sticker by reaching for it upon seeing it in the mirror does not prove a lack of self-awareness in my opinion. In fact, it may instead show a lack in the understanding that the child can remove the red dot on their own. Maybe the baby does not reach for the red dot simply because they don't understand that it can be removed. Maybe they just lack a sense of complete observation. I mean, how many times have you caught on to a change in the environment late? I know I personally have caught myself asking others, "Was this always here?" In all honesty, this test doesn't have much conclusive evidence in my opinion. I too find it to be lacking falsifiability. Maybe the baby just doesn't notice the change but still is aware it is their reflection in the mirror.

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This page contains a single entry by leex5566 published on February 19, 2012 4:55 PM.

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