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The Mirror Test
Slowly, you awake to find yourself alone. Underneath the fluorescent lights, your surroundings begin to take shape. Surrounded by white walls on all four sides, you try to understand how it is that you got here but your synapses are slow to fire. There are no doors. You turn around to face the wall behind you.
Hanging at eye-level there is a small mirror. As you get closer, you begin to see yourself in the reflection. The picture of you sharpens and the increased clarity orients you and your emotions but, at the same time, you find the brush strokes of your own portrait to be a bit jarring.
In 1970, American psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr developed a basic test to determine whether an animal is capable of self-recognition. He called it the mirror test:
In the classic MSR test, an animal is anesthetized and then marked (e.g. paint or sticker) on an area of the body the animal normally cannot see (e.g. forehead). When the animal recovers from the anesthetic, it is given access to a mirror. If the animal then touches or investigates the mark, it is taken as an indication that the animal perceives the reflected image as an image of itself, rather than of another animal.
Most animals fail to touch or investigate the mark, which we take as an indication that they are not capable of self-recognition. Those poor animals! They will never know the gift of their own reflection. The first chimpanzees to have the test administered to them made threatening gestures at the mirror, presumably perceiving their own reflections as an existential threat. Even young and impressionable animals like puppies and kittens will scratch and growl at the mirror. It is a very natural biological response to show aggression towards a foreign entity who’s intentions are not yet known.
Daniel Povelli argues for an alternative explanation to the mirror test, one that refutes the premise that animals who pass it are capable of self-reflection. How do we know that these animals are not thinking of their reflection in the mirror as some odd entity that they are capable of controlling through their own movements? By lifting up your own left arm, you can command the chimp in the mirror to lift up its left arm in exactly the same way. Until disproven, this theory posits that it is possible for animals to pass the mirror test without ever understanding that the reflected entity is the “self”.
There also exists a third, more interesting interpretation of the mirror test, one that only applies to animals that we already know do in fact possess the ability to be self-aware. Sometimes these animals will look in the mirror and still respond with threatening gestures, despite their supposed self-awareness.
Why would a self-aware animal react with animosity towards its own reflection?
Perhaps the animal does not like what it sees in the mirror. It is ashamed. Despite all biological indications that the ability to self-recognize exists, it continues to act as if on the other side of the glass stands the threat of a foreign animal.
In other words, the animal hates itself.