Reflecting on tests of self-awareness: Birds as a model
In the mirror test, a classic test of self-awareness, scientists surreptitiously mark an animal and place it in front of a mirror. So far, only a few creatures—such as apes, magpies, and dolphins—have been able to recognize their altered appearance as their own.
Why do most animals fail? Is this method actually useful for determining self-awareness? Nathan Emery tackles these questions in his project, which develops a new set of tests for investigating self-awareness.
By quantifying and clarifying previous research, this project aims to create a platform for empirical studies of animal consciousness. The team will test jays and ravens on novel mirror-based tasks. These tasks will capture a variety of subjects’ responses to changes in the mirror with respect to themselves and objects around them. Based on these responses, the team will construct a Reflective Intelligence Profile (RIP) for every individual/species in the study using a task triangulation approach.
At its core, the research addresses a profound idea: that animals may not only be intelligent (i.e., able to solve novel problems outside their natural repertoire) but also capable of reflecting on their own existence. This has wide implications for how we see ourselves and how we should treat animals. When discussing such weighty philosophical issues, outdated or controversial methods fall short. New research would thus be fascinating for both scientists and the public.
Findings will be of great importance whatever the results, either refuting the idea of self-awareness in animals, or allowing for the future application of a more comprehensive method that labs across the world can apply. By testing two species (jays, ravens) closely related to a species that has passed the mark test (magpies), the team can investigate the test battery’s utility and potential application to a wide variety of other creatures, including infants. They aim to report outcomes in high-profile scientific journals and in outlets that reach the wider public.