Self-Awareness in Animals

Cat / Self-Awareness in Animals


Elena Barnard

Animal Friends Pet Insurance

Each year there seems to be a new study that shows just how brilliant animals can be and more importantly how such cognitive abilities are helping them to advance and adapt.

There has been much deliberation and discussion on the subject of animals and consciousness (self-awareness). Conscious thought is an essential step to understanding that others have the same awareness and that each individual has its own conscious thoughts. It is now believed that certain animals have a sense of themselves both as an individual and how their actions can affect their environment as well as others who are around them.

The most well-known test that is thought to have demonstrated self-awareness in animals is what is known as ‘the mirror test’. This basic test involves placing a marking upon an animal where it will only be visible in a mirror (usually on the forehead). The animal is then placed in front of a mirror and its reactions studied. Some animals have actually turned their body to get a better view of the marking on them whilst others have touched and poked the marking on their body whilst looking at themselves in the mirror. These remarkable actions show that the animal has the ability to realise that the reflection in the mirror is itself. Animals that have demonstrated this self-awareness include humans over the age of 18 months, bottlenose dolphins, Asian elephants, orang-utans, great apes and chimpanzees.

Whilst the mirror test results demonstrate that these animals have a certain degree of self-awareness, they do not deal with how the animals are taking the information in, in other words, what cognitive process occurs within the animal’s brain.

The results of a recent study (conducted by Takaaki Kaneko and Masaki Tomonaga at the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan) show that ‘chimpanzees and humans share fundamental cognitive processes underlying the sense of being an independent agent’. The researchers designed a test whereby the chimp had to use a device (akin to a computer mouse) to move one of two on-screen cursors. The cursor that wasn’t controlled by the device would seemingly move on its own accord but in fact was a recording of earlier movements by other chimps taking part in the experiment. This ‘second’ cursor was designed to confuse the chimp. The test would end when the chimp hit a target with the cursor or the designated timeframe had elapsed. The chimp would then have to point to the cursor it had been controlling in order to gain a treat. All three of the chimps that took part scored over 90% showing that they understood which cursor they were controlling even though the other cursor was making almost identical physical movements.

At the Dolphin Institute they have devised a way in which to ascertain if a dolphin is aware of its recent behaviours. The dolphin is taught to respond to a certain gesture made by the trainer with a certain action; these being to either jump over the object, swim under the object, touch the object with their fin, to touch it with their tail fin or to touch it with their mouth. Once these have been learnt, the dolphin then learns to respond to two different hand gestures, one meaning they should repeat any action they have just performed and the other meaning they should perform any action of their choice apart from the one they have just performed.

So for example, a gesture would be given instructing the dolphin to swim under the object. Then if the ‘repeat’ gesture was given the dolphin would have to repeat the behaviour they just performed (swim under the object). If the ‘any’ gesture was given then they would have to perform any action apart from swimming under the object. These command experiments are usually done with patterns of four.

An example of a four-gestured pattern could be as follows: gesture made for the dolphin to touch the object with its fin (the dolphin does so), gesture made for ‘any’ (the dolphin jumps over the object), gesture made for ‘repeat’ (the dolphin jumps over the object) and then gesture made for ‘any’ (the dolphin swims under the object).

By being able to complete these sequences the dolphin must be able to uphold a mental depiction of the action it last performed and then be able to update that depiction frequently, meaning it must be cognitively aware of its own behaviour.

Whilst these studies do not help us to understand the exact cognitive processes of an animal that is capable of self-awareness, they clearly illustrate that some animals are aware of themselves as an individual. In particular, the study with the chimpanzees demonstrates that they can anticipate how their actions can affect the environment around them whilst the experiments at the Dolphin Institute show that dolphins can be aware of their own individual behaviours.

To find out more about animal behaviour, visit our blog, article and guide pages. Insuring your pet gives you peace of mind that you and your pet will be covered if anything were to happen. Animal Friends offer a range of policies for dogs, cats and horses, and we also insure older pets.

 


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    Hello, fellow animal lovers! I’m Elena, and I take care of social media for Animal Friends Insurance. I’m here to share the latest on animal welfare, our charity work and pet care. I foster and adopt rabbits and have a rescue dog called Luna.