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The Animal Mind

dvergara's picture

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When discussing the merits and shortcomings of the Dickensonian vs. Descartesian arguments, one is attempting to define the “mind,” and trying find whether or not the ‘self’ is separate from the brain. [In class,] Persons disagreed on whether or not the brain was responsible for our individuality or if there was a separate ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ that made each individual unique; but despite this debate, all agreed on the general phenomena of self-consciousness, an awareness shared by the majority of humans. (Here I exclude those with mental health disorders or in some cases, those in comas or vegetative states) In our attempts to determine the relationship between brain and behavior however, the animal “mind” was rarely if ever mentioned.  This brought up the question, are animals aware of the ‘self’? Is this a privilege that belongs only to humans, to humans and some animals, or to humans and the majority of animals as well? Are animals cognizant of their own identity, an identity that is different from, affected by and effective on others and their surroundings? Within the scientific community, the leading consensus is that very few animals have self-awareness, awareness which is gauged by the ability to pass a “mirror test,” otherwise known as the Gallup mark test, or Mirror Self Recognition (MSR).

The Gallup mark test is the leading way in which self-awareness is tested in animals. In this test, the test subject’s body is marked with either paint or a colored sticker. They are then placed in front of a mirror; if the change is noticed and the animal tries to remove or attend to the area, they are considered to have self-awareness. The animal recognizes that the image in the mirror is a reflection of itself. If the animal does not respond to the changed area, they then have no self-awareness and have failed the test. Chimpanzees and all other great ape species have passed the test, along with many bird species, elephants, dolphins, and pigs. Dogs, cats, and young human children (~under 18 months) always fail the test. One particular family of birds’ species, the corvids, (more commonly known as the bird family including crows and ravens) however, have consistently expressed intelligent behavior, in addition to passing the Gallup test.

What makes this finding particularly interesting is not that corvids form part of an elite group of self-conscious animals, but that they are the first non-mammalian animals to be included in said elite group. In addition, birds do not have a brain structure that is unique to mammals, the neocortex. As currently defined, the neocortex is “a portion of the brain involved in conscious thought, spatial reasoning and sensory perception,”(1). Even without a neocortex, corvids seem to display all three of these behaviors. This finding then is both interesting and useful because it completely throws out previous ideas of brain function. Whereas before we thought self-awareness arose in species with a well developed neocortex, we now know “self-recognition is possible with completely different brains,” (2). Because the neocortex is the most recently evolved brain structure, it has always been assumed that intelligence arose here. However, when birds, which do not have neocortices, express high levels of intelligence (as well as self-awareness) this tells us that our previous ideas about intelligence were wrong; and like the brain, our theories must evolve to fit the needs of our ever growing observations.

The corvids have also expressed the ability to recognize individual faces, as studied at the University of Washington, (3). In this study, the birds were exposed to two types of masked individuals, individuals wearing a ‘caveman’ mask would trap and band the crows and individuals wearing a Dick Cheney mask would do nothing to them. Soon enough, the crows would pester anyone wearing a caveman mask, even crows that were not used in the study; (the same results were also achieved when using more realistic masks). The evidence from the mask study along with the results from the Gallup test show that corvids “have evolved a parallel mental mechanism” to that of the mammalian neocortex. Although these findings may undermine the ‘elite’ status of humans and other mammals in the animal kingdom, they should also help redirect neurobiological research in finding the root of higher intelligence. Further still, these findings may help further the theories of evolution and establishing evolution’s presence in the creation of more and more complicated creatures.




1.     From McGraw Hill Learning Center glossary:

2.      Branan, Nicole. “Magpies recognize their faces in the mirror.” Scientific American. December 2008.

3.      Eaton, Joe. “Wild Neighbors: Corvid Minds—Know Yourself, Know Your Enemy.” The Berkeley Daily Planet. Sept 2008.

4.      From Serendip, Brain and Behavior—Nervous System Basics—Comparative Brain Organization—The Question of Intelligence. /bb/kinser/Type1.html

5.      Morelle, Rebecca. “Meet the Brains of the Animal World.” BBC News. May 2009.



Paul Grobstein's picture

self-recognition and intelligence in birds and ... ?

"I am coming more and more to the conviction that the rudiments of every behavioral mechanism will be found far down in the evolutionary scale and also represented even in primitive activities of the nervous system ... Karl Lashley, The Problem of Serial Order in Behavior, IN: Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior, L.A. Jeffries ed., Wiley, New York, pp 112-136, 1951"
Not everyone adheres to the "elite status of humans" perspective (Darwin certainly didn't), and are instead intrigued by the continuities of humans with other living organisms.  Along these lines, it is indeed interesting that some birds pass the "mirror test."  But its also worth bearing in mind that organisms that don't "pass" the mirror test may in fact have nonetheless some degree of "self-recognition."  Perhaps they are less disturbed than humans and birds by a change in their appearance and so don't respond to it in ways we notice. 
Yep, textbooks equate neocortex with "self-recognition" and "intelligence" and the bird observations should be taken as a correction of that.  On the other hand, the problem here may have originated with the restricted nature of observations by humans.  Birds don't have a neocortex that we easily recognize, but may well have brain regions that, in terms of their connectivity, are parallel to neocortex and could serve parallel functions (Avian brains and a new understanding of vertebrate brain evolution). 
Among the intriguing questions that follow from all this is a human presumption tht "self-recognition" is somehow related to "intelligence."  Why do we think that?  And what might we learn about ourselves, among other things, by a better appreciation of the capabilities of other organisms?