Animals have private thoughts too

Really. Until recently we thought only humans and chimps could recognize their own images in a mirror, and indication of self-awareness. Indeed, other primates and even young children can't do it. But a few years ago dolphins made the grade. Now elephants have shown they can recognize themselves too.


In 2001 Diana Reiss at Columbia University reported that dolphins will position themselves to view marks on their body they couldn't see otherwise, showing they can recognize their own reflections. Dolphins are highly social animals, they have large brains, and seem to show empathy towards one another. So do humans, apes, and another large-brained and empathetic species, elephants. So Dr. Reiss decided to give three Asian elephants at the Bronx Zoo in New York City a mirror to see how they reacted.

Animals that recognize themselves in a mirror typically first have a social response: "Who are you?" When they don't get a response they physically inspect the mirror often looking behind it (movie). After repetitively testing the mirror, they realize they're seeing themselves. Sure enough, the elephants inspected themselves with their trunks while staring at their reflections, and one elephant also repeatedly touched a mark (movie) on its head.

Self-recognition is one of those things that we thought sets us apart from other animals because it suggests an explicit understanding that we exist, that we're separate from others, and that we have private thoughts. We thought it was an indicator of highly-developed, abstract thinking, a precursor to more advanced processes like meta-cognitive reasoning (thinking about thinking) that is typical only of humans.

TH

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