I am conducting an investigation into the topic of the intelligence of animals, in particular farm animals. I would be interested to hear a scientific and biologic perspective as to what is perceived to be self-awareness, whether it be in a human or not. Specifically, I am interested in the high-level self-awareness that we as humans experience and that is only now, beginning to be theorised as possible in other mammals (e.g. Dolphins).

The question is framed in a robotic context, where a being (natural or artificial) is defined to be self-aware if it can approximate enough human behaviour and thought, that it becomes indistinguishable from a human. This term we could label sentience, but this is a subjective term, and so I will avoid using it for the purpose of this question. I will define a being as self-aware in the robot context, as a being capable of both conscious reflection of itself and of its own conciousness.

One of the problems I have found in my investigation, is a serious misunderstanding about the nature of self-awareness, amongst the general public.

It seems that many people incorrectly assume that self-awareness is a product of a being having a soul. This is rather unfortunate for animals as orthodox Christianity teaches that animals do not have souls, and therefore are incapable of attaining self-awareness.

My investigation aims to bring to mainstream public attention, a new definition of self-awareness, and to end the centuries-old misconception that we are the only intelligent, self-aware creatures on the planet.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I don't think self-awareness and sentience means the same thing. Even a bug or plant has a response to pain and can recognize its attacker, etc... For me self-awareness means that I know that I am an individual and that I have a body. I think it is hard to talk about this topic without proper words and definitions, so I suggest you to add these definitions to your question, since in the current form it is not clear what you are asking. I assume the topic will lead you more to psychology than biology. $\endgroup$
    – inf3rno
    Nov 4 '14 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate your comments and I shall update my quedtion accotdingly. $\endgroup$
    – Adam893
    Nov 5 '14 at 8:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You need to add the definition of 'sentience' that you are using. Standard definitions of 'sentience' often include subjective sense, perception and feeling, not involving high level intelligence or reasoning. Using these definitions, sentience in animals should be pretty uncontroversial. $\endgroup$ Nov 5 '14 at 8:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Adam893 You haven't added a definition or clarification of what you mean with sentience, just the words "high-level". Since you want comparisons and evidence for "sentience" in widely different animals, a clear definition of what kind of traits you are looking for is essential. $\endgroup$ Nov 5 '14 at 9:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Many thanks for the comments, you are completely right. I have rephrased the question and removed as many subjective terms (inc. sentience) as possible. $\endgroup$
    – Adam893
    Nov 5 '14 at 9:39

Yes, there is a lot of evidence for self-awareness in animals. The gold standard test for self-awareness is the mirror self-recognition test (MSR)--we can tell from the behavior of an animal exposed to a mirror whether or not it can tell itself apart from other animals of the same species:

Animals that possess MSR typically progress through four stages of behavior when facing a mirror: (i) social responses, (ii) physical inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior, and (iv) realization of seeing themselves. (Plotnik et al. 2006)

That quote was taken from the abstract of a paper showing self-recognition in a single African elephant, but there is evidence for self-awareness in magpies (Prior et al. 2008), dolphins (Harley 2013), chimpanzees (Povinelli et al. 2006) and orangutans (Suarez and Gallup 1981). Many of these studies use the Gallup mark test (Wikipedia):

Gallup anaesthetised the chimpanzees and then painted a red alcohol-soluble dye on the eyebrow ridge and on the top half of the opposite ear. When the dye dried, it had virtually no olfactory or tactile cues. Gallup then returned the chimpanzees to the cage (with the mirror removed) and allowed them to regain full consciousness. He then recorded the frequency which the chimpanzees spontaneously touched the marked areas of skin. After 30 minutes, the mirror was re-introduced into the room and the frequency of touching the marked areas again determined. The frequency of touching increased to 4-10 with the mirror present compared to only 1 when the mirror had been removed. The chimpanzees sometimes inspected their fingers visually or olfactorily after touching the marks.

Basically, an animal which has seen and recognized itself in a mirror recognizes the mark as being new, so it touches its own body on the marked area, which shows that the animal recognizes the image in the mirror as itself.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ However, the mirror test has at least one serious flaw, in that it assumes that other creatures use vision as the primary means of identification. If someone changed your body odor while you were sleeping, would you notice the change? $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Apr 20 '15 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ That's a definite limitation especially for animals which rely on other senses (dogs, etc.). I'm pretty sure similar studies have been attempted with other stimuli (maybe dogs and their own urine?), although I don't have a reference to back it up. $\endgroup$
    – Luigi
    Apr 20 '15 at 3:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.