What is self-aware?

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What is self-aware?

Perhaps the week’s most important study also seems the least important.

Over the last few years we have increasingly become aware that humans are not that special. Things that we thought were uniquely “us” just recently we now know are also “them.”

It matters because we tend to be more empathetic to those of our own and other species once we know what we share in common with them. What we are finding is that we are not uniquely intelligent (some species of ant are more intelligent than we are), or strategic (chimps beat us hands-down) or more self-aware (almost every week we find some other mammal species is as self-aware as we are). 

Well now we’ve found that a species of fish, the cleaner wrasse (Labroidesdimidiatus) may be s self-aware as we are. If you are self-aware you can think, you have cognition.

A research paper has just produced a bombshell which may force us to change our views of other species.

What the researchers say: The wrasse, they have found, responds to its reflection and attempts to remove marks on its body during the mirror test—a method held as the gold standard for determining if animals are self-aware. The finding,published in the journal PLOSBiology, suggests that fish might possess far higher cognitive powers than previously thought, and ignites a high-stakes debate over how we assess the intelligence of animals that are so unlike ourselves.

The study’s researchers say that their results provide clear evidence of behaviors that appear to pass through all phases of the mirror test, but that the interpretation of what these mean is less clear: Does a ‘pass’ mark in the mirror test demonstrate that fish possess self-awareness—a cognitive trait thought only to be present in primates and some other mammals? Or can the mirror test be solved by very different cognitive processes than previously thought?

“The behaviors we observe leave little doubt that this fish behaviorally fulfills all criteria of the mirror test as originally laid out.,” says the senior author on the study.

The ability to perceive and recognize a reflected mirror image as self (mirror self-recognition) is considered a hallmark of cognition across species. To test for this phenomenonin fish, the researchers applied the classic ‘mark’ test to the cleaner wrasse—a fish best known for “cleaning” external parasites from client fish—by placing a colored mark on fish in a location that can only be seen in a mirror reflection. In order to gain a ‘pass’, the test requires that the animal must touch or investigate the mark, demonstrating that it perceives the reflected image as itself. This is clearly a challenge for animals such as fish that lack limbs and hands.

The researchers observed that fish attempted to remove the marks by scraping their bodies on hard surfaces after viewing themselves in the mirror. Fish never attempted to remove transparent marks in the presence of a mirror, or colored marks when no mirror was present—suggesting that marked fish were responding to the visual cue of seeing the mark on themselves in the mirror. Further, unmarked fish did not attempt to remove marks from themselves when interacting with a marked fish across a clear divider, nor did they attempt to remove marks placed on the mirror itself—suggesting that fish were not innately reacting to a mark resembling an ectoparasite anywhere in the environment, for instance due to hard-wired feeding responses.

The researchers acknowledge the controversial nature of the study, saying: “Depending on your position, you might reject the interpretation that these behaviors in a fish satisfy passing the test at all. But on what objective basis can you do this when the behaviors they show are so functionally similar to those of other species that have passed the test?”

So, what?Can we continue to mistreat other creatures the way we do once we understand that that they are just as aware and cognitively alive as we are? 

A ton of recent research has shown that the more we mistreat animals the more likely we are to mistreat humans—that cruelty to them lowers the barriers preventing our being cruel to others of our own species. Further some studies have shown that when we eat factory-farmed animals the stress they feel can be passed down to us causing mood disorders such as depression and panic disorder. Hunter-gatherers treated other species as our equals and maybe that is one reason that they were largely free of these mental illnesses.

That doesn’t mean you have to become vegan—H-Gs certainly aren’t—just avoid being cruel.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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