Université de Strasbourg

Public lecture - Behind, in front of and around the mirror: Self-recognition in primates

December 7, 2023
From 15:30 until 17:00
Salle de conférence, ISIS, Strasbourg

By James R. Anderson, Kyoto University, Japan

The daily use of a mirror to check our appearance is evidence of our ability to recognise ourselves. For example, we all have one or more mental representations of our own physical appearance as seen from the perspective of others. Mirrors have long been used to study this capacity for self-recognition in other species – the extent of its presence, its development, the factors that influence it. 

For many years, I have investigated the possibility that at least some non-human species have a sufficiently sophisticated self-awareness to understand that the individual seen in the mirror is, more often than not, “me”. On several occasions, these studies have shown that most ‘little monkeys’ - such as macaques, baboons, vervets or even capuchins - show reactions of astonishment and curiosity when first confronted with their own reflection, but also and more importantly, social responses, such as facial expressions and vocalisations (lip-smacking, grimaces, scowls and frowns). If the mirror is within reach, the monkey may look behind to better spot or even to catch that strange individual who is there, but not there. One surprising observation was that, despite the absence of signs of self-recognition, monkeys can learn to follow the movements of their hands in the mirror in order to spot and grab a treat that would not be visible without this reflection. 

James Anderson Chimps large mirror

However, self-recognition is even more interesting when it comes to the species that are closest to humans in terms of evolution: the great apes. When in front of a mirror, after a few 'social' behaviours directed at their reflections, chimpanzees are often observed examining and checking regions of their own body that are normally invisible, which they do carefully with the aid of the mirror. For example, they look into their mouths and clean their teeth. 

These kinds of behaviour show us that great apes possess a capacity for self-recognition, and this phenomenon is confirmed when they pass the famous "spot test". In this talk, I will show some examples of animal behaviour in the presence of a mirror, and discuss the implications of differences in self-awareness in psychological and evolutionary terms of psychology and evolution.

This lecture will be in English.

Photo credits : Pixabay, Andre Mouton (photo on top);  James R. Anderson (second photo)

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