A human being knows that the image in the mirror is she. That’s why we spend so much time staring into them. Great apes have a similar capacity for narcissism. Monkeys, however, don’t make the connection between the monkey in the mirror and themselves.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t. Chinese scientists have shown they can train rhesus monkeys to recognize themselves in the mirror, by the simple expedient of annoying the crap out of them.
Although monkeys in previous experiments never managed that spark of recognition no matter how many mirrors they were given, they didn’t have scientists sitting them in front of a mirror and shining a “mildly irritating” laser on their faces until they got a clue.
The scientists shined the laser on the monkey’s faces for two to five weeks until they realized that the marks they were seeing on the mirror corresponded to the irritation on their own faces.
After training with the laser the scientists were able to replace it with colored dye marks or virtual marks on the video screen. The monkeys still realized the marks were on their own faces even without the irritation as a guide.
Once this cognitive leap was made, five out of seven monkeys used the mirror for self-inspection. This included touching the mark on the face or ear and then smelling their fingers to try to identify what was on their face.
The monkeys also spontaneously used the mirror to inspect other body parts. Exactly what ones are thankfully left to the imagination.
“Our findings suggest that the monkey brain has the basic ‘hardware’ [for mirror self-recognition], but they need appropriate training to acquire the ‘software’ to achieve self-recognition,” says Neng Gong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The research offers hope that human beings with brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, autism, schizophrenia or mental retardation that prevent them from recognizing themselves in a mirror can learn to do so.
“Although the impairment of self-recognition in patients implies the existence of cognitive/neurological deficits in self-processing brain mechanisms, our finding raised the possibility that such deficits might be remedied via training,” the researchers wrote in their findings. “Even partial restoration of self-recognition ability could be desirable.”
[Source: Cell Press]