Apologies to Jana

I owe Jana an apology.

I’m reading a wonderful book (go get it right now!), Beyond Words by Carl Safina. A review will be posted … once I finish the book. I’ve finished the sections on elephants, wolves, and, best of all, dogs. Orcas are up next.

He takes great delight in lampooning several ludicrous studies that purport to prove humans’ superiority in matters of self-awareness and “theory of mind.” In reading Safina’s analysis of the mirror test, I realized that I got it all wrong. His explanation is brilliant — and so obvious.

The mirror test has been used for decades to establish, so some researchers say, whether an animal has self-awareness. This is variously defined as recognizing that you exist as an individual separate from other individuals (and your environment) to, more absurdly, the definition put forth by the creator of the test and quoted in Safina’s book: “Self-awareness provides the ability to contemplate the past, to project into the future, and to speculate on what others are thinking.” Other definitions include the “capacity for introspection.” I’m not sure how recognizing yourself in the mirror reveals a capacity for introspection or an ability to project into the future, but the folks who wrote those definitions did not explain that detail.

The test involves surreptitiously putting some sort of mark on the test subject’s forehead. When the person (whether human, ape, dolphin, dog, etc.) looks in the mirror, if the person touches or tries to remove the mark, he or she is recognizing that the reflection is not some other creature but an image of himself or herself. I understand that. What Safina points out, though, is that that says nothing at all about self-awareness. What it reveals is an understanding of how reflection works. Seems pretty obvious, no?

He goes on to talk about what self-awareness really means — being aware that you, yourself, are separate from other “selves” and from the environment. He says that a creature that does not recognize this would assume that the reflection was itself since it would not differentiate its own “self” from anything else, but that would also make it impossible to move, eat, find a mate, or do much of anything, like survive. He provides wonderful examples of all kinds of non-humans showing exquisite understanding of their environments and other beings that populate those environments.

I’ll leave his discussion of theory of mind for another post.

So, what does all of this have to do with Jana? In a long-ago post, I described Jana’s experience with the mirror test, and I described her as not only self-aware but also as self-absorbed. While this might be true, I did not give her enough credit. You see, Safina points out that what some non-humans (and who knows, maybe some toddlers as well) do when they first encounter mirrors and do not (yet) understand reflection is that they try to engage with or attack the other being in the mirror. While many psychologists will say that this means that they are not self-aware, Safina makes the (again obvious) point that it absolutely shows self-awareness. Trying to play with or attack another being requires that understanding that you and he are not the same creature!

So. Jana. When Jana was a puppy, we had an older dog, Timo, who resented the puppy and did not play with her. My mom had two adult dogs, Buddy and Daisy, who also were not keen on playing with this relatively large, high-energy puppy. But at my mom’s apartment, Jana made a wonderful discovery: a puppy who kept play-bowing and acting friendly and excited to see her. Jana could not understand why this other puppy never moved beyond the play bow, however. Within a few weeks, Jana did recognize that the puppy in the mirror was actually her, and she stopped trying to get the puppy to play. I used to tell this story and say it meant that little Jana didn’t yet have self-awareness. How wrong I was!

Thanks, Dr. Safina, for pointing out that of course my brilliant puppy knew that she was a distinct individual — an individual who simply wanted a playmate.



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