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I've been looking at this Ted talk on interspecies internet, and it appears that they have selected a small number of species of animals (dolphin, elephant, and some ape(?)) and are intent on developing interfaces for these animals to be able to connect with other animals over the internet.

From the talk, it appeared as if one of the criteria for animal selection was whether or not an animal recognizes itself in the mirror. This got me thinking - there are many more cats that have access to technology like the internet or TV or cats that have been interacting with touch screen displays. Yet apparently cats cant recognize their own reflection as themselves.

What is so special about being able to recognize one's own reflection? Is it a true measure of self awareness? Does it only appear in animals with larger brains?

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2 Answers 2

I think it is a necessary test of self-awareness. In order to make the connection that "I am the being in the mirror" and that every action I do will be reflected in the mirror (or, vice versa, every action I see the being in the mirror take is a reflection of my own action), one must first have a concept of self. One requires a constant present-tense (at least) story of oneself: "I am doing this. Now I am doing that. Oh look, I am doing this and that guy is doing the exact same thing." And then there's the ultimate realization, "Ah ha! That's me!". That realization would make no sense if the individual has no sense of "me"!

[speculation] On the other hand, perhaps it is too strict. It seems that it would unfairly favor social species, since it requires not only recognizing another member of the species (and being able to associate the anatomy of another member of the species with one's own anatomy), but it may also require the recognition of intent. That latter requirement is complicated by differentiating between intent and compulsion: at some point, one must realize that the being in the mirror isn't trying to copy but rather it always, inevitibly reflects one's motions. So, perhaps a cat is self-aware, in a sense that it has a constant story in its head of what it is doing and what it intends to do, but it cannot easily ascribe intent to other members of the species and thus cannot figure out that the cat in the mirror is automatically mirroring all of its movements. [/speculation]

Herein lies the rub: there is no perfect test for self-awareness; we can cast doubt on any outcome. The best would be if these animals could communicate with us by language. In lieu of that, we have to think of such tests that demonstrate with reasonable confidence that the species carries all of the characteristics that we attribute to self-awareness. I think another good test would be determining whether the species can plan individual actions in the future; in order to say, "first I will do this, then that; finally, that will allow me to do that", it seems like it would reasonably require an understanding of self and the consequences of one's actions. An example would be birds solving sequential puzzles.

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To the answer above: "I am the being in the mirror", one has to ask themselves: Is it so strange that a cat seeing it's own paw in front of it and recognizing it as it's his OWN, and not chasing it's own tail because it knows it's his and he's not a kitten anymore?

So how much different is that when they come to understand, especially after you hold the cat several times in front of the mirror with you, making the association and he's no longer weirded out? Many cats making this transition look in curiosity and awe and move on, never really caring that much about it -- much like kids.

Bring a cat into a bathroom with a mirrored wall behind the sinks, when he's dealing with something where the mirror is in his line of sight. Walk in behind. When the cat turns around to look at you to play instantly, instead of trying to play with the mirror -- it recognizes that it shows whats behind him. I have observed this.

If a cat recognizing it's own tail out of it's "perif" is nothing special, neither is recognizing that it's him in the mirror. He may not be cognitively advanced to think deeper than "Yep, that's me, I have THIS look. Oh, am I getting fat?" -- they care less about that.

A good test would be to have a cat with whom you can put something on his head and he doesn't care -- unless it's something he HATES by its LOOK. Once you've established that over and over 100%, and have been able to put it on him without him caring without him SEEING it -- put him in front of the mirror and see if he tries to take it off.

A red dot isn't going to do squat. They don't give a shoot about things like that. If you want to know whether they know IT'S THEM, put them in position where there's something they DON'T WANT on them -- and they try to get it off... where it's something they don't mind on them, they don't try to get it off after seeing themselves in the mirror.

Not fool-proof, though. They may not mind it on them because it's purely how it looks. They can just walk away from the mirror and they don't have to worry about it.

But back to the original point: I don't think it's a big deal that they can recognize that it's themselves. To UTILIZE that for deeper thinking in making connections is another matter.

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