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Self Awareness: Who's That Stunner?

June 5, 2006 issue - Enlightened types say they're "self-aware" when they mean they're one with the universe. But for scientists who study animal behavior, the term "self-awareness" has always meant something much more down to earth. Since the 1970s, researchers have been investigating whether animals, like humans, can think about themselves, their past and their future. To find out, they draw markings on animals' bodies and put them in mirrored rooms. If the animals spot the markings and pose so as to examine them better, they understand that they're seeing themselves. According to the theory, they're self-aware.

The trouble is, increasingly, scientists are finding that the theory doesn't always match the data. Creatures that don't have brains built for self-awareness (at least as we know it) have recently passed the mirror test. Other animals that strike out show signs of self-awareness in the wild. And still others seem to be "semi-self-aware"--they don't quite pass, but they don't quite fail, either. "People have always looked at self-awareness as very black and white, something you either have or you don't," says primatologist Franz de Waal. "But it's incredibly hard to define."

Last month, a study in Neuron announced that the part of the brain that makes humans self-aware is the superior frontal gyrus, found in the frontal lobes. Bottlenose dolphins don't have a superior frontal gyrus like ours, and by that standard they shouldn't be able to recognize their reflections. But boy, can they--give them a mirror and they vogue. Emory neurobiologist Lori Marino says the research shows us that "there's more than one way to be smart." She expects that other cetaceans, including orcas and even sperm whales, could also pass the test. In the next few months researchers will announce that another animal--not a primate or a marine mammal--has also passed.

Meanwhile, animals that have failed the test are proving their intelligence. Elephants may not recognize their reflections, but they show "complex altruistic behavior," says de Waal. Some species of birds have other hallmarks of self-awareness, from naming behavior to a rudimentary sense of fairness. Then there are capuchin monkeys, de Waal's pet projects. As he reported last year, these monkeys interact with their reflections in ways that don't mirror (ahem) any other known behaviors--females flirt and stare deeply into their own eyes, while males intimidate themselves. They can't properly ID the monkey in the mirror, but they know it's not a stranger. "It's like they're on the road to recognizing the reflection," says researcher Diana Reiss, "but they're not quite there." There's only one other beast known to show that kind of behavior: a toddler.

�Mary Carmichael

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