Reflections of a Monkey

For the first time in their species a group of monkeys have been trained to recognise themselves in the mirror. Researchers in Shanghai have used a series of techniques to override the animals natural reaction, that the reflection is a number animal, and raise possible questions about the self-awareness of other species.

As the authors note, self-recognition is a distinctive indicator of intelligence for humans (and some apes), however monkeys, such as the Rhesus species used in this study have traditionally not shown such awareness. The researchers shone a low-intensity laser beam onto monkeys  sitting in front of a mirror, this would cause a mild irritation and for the monkeys to scratch themselves. With repetitions the majority of the monkey’s learned to touch a similar mark that did not cause any sensation. Importantly though five out of seven monkeys also showed typical ‘mirror behaviour’, in other words they checked out the parts of their body they couldn’t see. The monkey equivalent of ‘does my bum look big in this?’ it remains to be seen whether this results in swathes of self-conciousness and style icons in the monkey community.

These results open up big questions about self-awareness of other species, traditionally mirror behaviour has not been seen as a learned behaviour and we can therefore look at new questions about the neural mechanisms of self-recognition. Humans for example typically demonstrate this behaviour around two years old, but could knowledge of this learned behaviour speed up the process? Can we assume that monkeys have a higher cognitive ability than we once thought, or is this process equally possible in your household labrador? Many questions remain unanswered from this exciting research.



Original study – Chang et al (2015)

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Sam Alvis


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