Tag Archives: self-awareness

Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse.

Tiny fish passes mirror test, might be self-aware

Another animal passes the mirror test — surprisingly, this time it’s a fish. The mirror test is a classic experiment used to determine animal self-awareness that only a handful of species have passed.

Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse.

There might be more to the Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) than meets the eye. Image credits Elias Levy.

A paper published by an international research team suggest that there might be more to the mind of the cleaner wrasse than we’d suspected. This tiny, unassuming tropical fish has just joined the few creatures that seem able to recognize their own reflection, the team writes.


The mirror self-recognition test (MSR) was first used during the 1970s by psychologist Gordon Gallup. Gallup presented the mirror to a group of adolescent chimpanzees, who — having never seen a mirror before — initially treated the images they saw as threats. After some time, however, they started shifting their behavior. In time, they learned that the mirror showed them a reflection of their own bodies, and so started to use them to groom or inspect themselves.

Gallup concluded that this change in behavior requires some level of self-awareness, a mental model of their own body as distinct from friends, foes, or other parts of the environment. The mirror test thus imposed itself as a key tool for researchers studying animal self-recognition.

The golden standard relies on the animal reacting in an unusual manner towards a novel feature of their body seen in the mirror. For example, if you see a spot of paint on your forehead in the mirror, you’d try to wipe it off. You do this because you recognize your face as being your own and because you can recognize the paint as not being ‘you’.

Bluestreak cleaner wrasse.

Image via Wikimedia.

Since the 1970s, a few other animal species, usually mammals or birds, have passed the test as well. These range from ants to elephants (you can see a full list here). Some of these results, however, are still debated: manta rays, for example, acted oddly in front of mirrors, suggesting there was some sort of awareness behind their actions, but nothing conclusive could yet be determined. Many animals we consider social and intelligent, such as dogs, cats, or octopuses, have routinely failed the mirror test. Even humans often struggle with it, with some cultures not passing until six years of age or older.

The team, with members from Japan, Germany, and Switzerland, settled on the cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) for their experiment as it has good vision and for its ability to spot parasites on other fish — both of which make it ideally suited for MSR-type tests. The team placed 10 fish in individual tanks outfitted with a mirror.

Being highly territorial animals, the fish at first attacked the mirrors, perceiving their reflection as intruders. Their attitude soon changed, however: within a few days, the fish were actually dancing in front of the mirrors, the team notes. This easily qualifies as ‘unusual’ behavior for the species, which tends to be solitary.

Next, the researchers placed a spot of colored gel on eight of the fishes’ heads in a position where they’d only be visible in the mirror. Seven of the fish spent ‘significantly more’ time in positions where the gel was visible in their reflection, the team writes. Several of them went on to spend more time than before trying to scrape the area against objects in their environment, the researchers add.

While the results suggest that the wrasse could perceive the images in the mirror as their own reflection, and the gel tests seem to indicate that they can notice outside changes to their bodies, the paper has sparked its own bout of debate. Some critics have pointed out that its possible the wrasse viewed the blobs as parasites on the skins of other fish, and not as being on their bodies at all.

Should the findings be confirmed, however, it would be an exciting development. Wrasses have relatively simple nervous systems, and we tend to associate self-awareness with complex brains. Not only would it be exciting to see self-awareness develop on such restrained ‘hardware’, but also to understand what that difference means in terms of how the fish experience self-awareness.

The paper “Cleaner wrasse pass the mark test. What are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals?” has been published in the preprint server bioRxiv.

Slug P. californica.

‘Self-aware’, predatory, digital slug mimics the behavior of the animal it was modeled on

Upgrade, or the seeds of a robot uprising? U.S. researchers report they’ve constructed an artificially intelligent ocean predator that behaves a lot like the organism it was modeled on.

Slug P. californica.

Image credits Tracy Clark.

This frightening, completely digital predator — dubbed “Cyberslug” — reacts to food, threats, and members of its own ‘species’ much like the living animal that formed its blueprint: the sea slug Pleurobranchaea californica.

Slug in the machine

Cyberslug owes this remarkable resemblance to its biological counterpart to one rare trait among AIs — it is, albeit to a limited extent, self-aware. According to University of Illinois (UoI) at Urbana-Champaign professor Rhanor Gillette, who led the research efforts, this means that the simulated slug knows when it’s hungry or threatened, for example. The program has also learned through trial and error which other kinds of virtual critters it can eat, and which will fight back, in the simulated world the researchers pitted it against.

“[Cyberslug] relates its motivation and memories to its perception of the external world, and it reacts to information on the basis of how that information makes it feel,” Gillette said.

While slugs admittedly aren’t the most terrifying of ocean dwellers, they do have one quality that made them ideal for the team — they’re quite simple beings. Gillette goes on to explain that in the wild, sea slugs typically handle every interaction with other creatures by going through a three-item checklist: “Do I eat it? Do I mate with it? Or do I flee?”

Biologically simple, this process becomes quite complicated to handle successfully inside a computer program. That’s because, in order to make the right choice, an organism must be able to sense its internal state (i.e. whether it is hungry or not), obtain and process information from the environment (does this creature look tasty or threatening) and integrate past experience (i.e. ‘did this animal bite/sting me last time?’). In other words, picking the right choice involves the animal being aware of and understanding both its state, that of the environment, and the interaction between them — which is the basis of self-awareness.

Behavior chart slug.

Schematic of the approach-avoid behavior in the slug.
Image credits Jeffrey W. Brown et al., 2018, eNeuro.

Some of Gillette’s previous work focused on the brain circuits that allow sea slugs to operate these choices in the wild, mapping their function “down to individual neurons”. The next step was to test the accuracy of their models — and the best way to do this was to recreate the circuits of the animals’ brains and let them loose inside computer simulations. One of the earliest such circuit boards to represent the sea slug‘s brain, constructed by co-author Mikhail Voloshin, software engineer at the UoI, was housed in a plastic foam takeout container.

In the meantime, the duo have refined both their hardware and the code used to simulate the critters. Cyberslug’s decision-making is based on complex algorithms that estimate and weigh its individual goals, just like a real-life slug would.

“[P. californica‘s] default response is avoidance, but hunger, sensation and learning together form their ‘appetitive state,’ and if that is high enough the sea slug will attack,” Gillette explains. “When P. californica is super hungry, it will even attack a painful stimulus. And when the animal is not hungry, it usually will avoid even an appetitive stimulus. This is a cost-benefit decision.”

Cyberslug behaves the same way. The more it eats, for example, the more satiated it becomes and the less likely it will be to bother or attack something else (no matter its tastiness). Over time, it can also learn which critters to avoid, and which can be prayed upon with impunity. However, if hungry enough, Cyberslug will throw caution to the wind and even attack prey that’s adept at fighting back, if nothing less belligerent comes around for it to eat.

“I think the sea slug is a good model of the core ancient circuitry that is still there in our brains that is supporting all the higher cognitive qualities,” Gillette said. “Now we have a model that’s probably very much like the primitive ancestral brain. The next step is to add more circuitry to get enhanced sociality and cognition.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen researchers ‘digitizing’ the brains of simpler creatures — and this process holds one particular implication that I find fascinating.

Brains are, when you boil everything down, biological computers. Most scientists are pretty confident that we’ll eventually develop artificial intelligence, and sooner rather than later. But it also seems to me that there’s an unspoken agreement that the crux falls on the “artificial” part; that such constructs would always be lesser, compared to ‘true’, biological intelligence.

However, when researchers can quite successfully take a brain’s functionality and print it on a computer chip, doesn’t that distinction between artificial and biological intelligence look more like one of terminology rather than one of nature? If the computer can become the brain, doesn’t that make artificial life every bit as ‘true’ as our own, as worthy of recognition and safeguarding as our own?

I’d love to hear your opinion on that in the comments below.

The paper “Implementing Goal-Directed Foraging Decisions of a Simpler Nervous System in Simulation” has been published in the journal eNeuro.

More evidence adds up to support the intelligence of elephants

Researchers have shown that Asian elephants are even smarter than we thought. They exhibited bodily self-awareness and use it in real-life problem solving.

Image credits: University of Cambridge.

Self-awareness in both children and animals is regarded as a clear sign of intelligence, but it’s not exactly the easiest thing in the world to demonstrate. The classic study involves the subject looking at a reflection of itself in a mirror, and seeing whether or not it understands it is looking at itself. So far, only a handful of species has passed this test — great apes, dolphins, magpies and elephants. But more and more researchers argue that the mirror test is an imperfect and incomplete measure of one’s self-awareness. Self-awareness is not a simple black-or-white measure, it is a string of complex thoughts and understanding, and the mirror just doesn’t cover that.

So scientists started looking for alternative tests to complement the mirror, and one of the main candidates is a custom self-awareness test. This test looks at how individuals may recognize their bodies as obstacles to succeed in a problem-solving task. The idea is to analyze the individual’s understanding of the way his body interacts with the surrounding environment, and then see how the individual uses this to solve problems.

For the elephant version of this test, Dr Josh Plotnik, visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, devised a new test. Working together with his colleague Rachel Dale (now a PhD student at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna), he attached a stick to a mat using a rope. The elephants had to walk onto the mat, pick up the stick and pass it to a trainer. As you can imagine, the trick was that the stick was connected to the mat, and with the elephant standing on the mat, it couldn’t pass it — it had to get off the mat for this to work. The elephants had to realize they need to get off the mat before they could pass the stick. They also had a control version of this test, in which the stick wasn’t tied to the mat.

In the control version, elephants would rarely step off the mat before passing the stick, but when the two were tied together, elephants would step off the mat before passing the stick. This might seem like a simple task, but its implications run quite deep.

“This is a deceptively simple test, but its implications are quite profound,” says Dr Plotnik. “The elephants understood that their bodies were getting in the way, so they stepped aside to enable themselves to complete the task. In a similar test, this is something that young children are unable to understand until they are about two years old.

“This implies that elephants may be capable of recognising themselves as separate from objects or their environment. This means that they may have a level of self-understanding, coupled with their passing of the mirror test, which is quite rare in the animal kingdom.”

Furthermore, this solidifies the status of elephants as intelligent creatures. Plotnik argues that studies such as this are important to help us understand how intelligent other animals are, and increase our appreciation of them. In 2011, he conducted a different study showing that elephants often work together to solve problems. His research is a solid indication that we may have been underselling elephant intelligence for years.

“Elephants are well regarded as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, but we still need more empirical, scientific evidence to support this belief,” says Dale. “We know, for example, that they are capable of thoughtful cooperation and empathy, and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. These abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates. We wanted to see if they also show ‘body-awareness’.”

Journal Reference: Dale, R, and Plotnik, JM — Elephants know when their bodies are obstacles to success in a novel transfer task. Scientific Reports; 12 April 2017; DOI: 10.1038/srep46309

Chimp self-awareness

New research shows chimps are self-aware

Until recently it was considered that only humans have the ability of being aware of the fact that they exist as an individual, but studies show that chimps as well as dolphins share this ability.

A recent research revolving around chimps strengthens the idea and shows that our close relatives are indeed self-aware and can anticipate the consequences of their actions upon their environment. The research was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B and could prove to have a tremendous impact on what’s philosophically considered human and non-human, as well as provide an important first stepping stone for further study of the evolution of consciousness.

Past studies employed various tests to see how self-aware chimps. The most evident and effective of them involved painting a chimp’s face and then facing him against a mirror – if the chimp would have touched his face and try to scrub the paint off than it proves the chimp recognizes himself. A simple self-recognition isn’t evidence enough of self-awareness, though, so researchers sought to test even further.

Takaaki Kaneko and Masaki Tomonaga of the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto designed a series of three experiments to see if chimps, our closest cousins genetically, can reason like humans in certain tasks connected to individuality.

The first test involved three females. The chimps initiated a video game by placing a finger on a touch-sensitive screen and then used a trackball, similar to a computer mouse, to move one of two cursors. The second cursor was implemented to distract the chimps, and was a recording of gestures made earlier by the same animal and set in motion by the computer. As soon as a chimp hit a target or the time lapsed, the test would end. Here’s where the test becomes really interesting to the point of remarkable – each chimp had to point with his finger which of the two cursors he had been manipulating, and received a reward if she chose correctly. All three animals scored above 90 percent. Wow, right ?

“This indicates that the chimpanzees were able to distinguish the cursor actions controlled by themselves from those caused by other factors, even when the physical properties of those actions were almost identical,” the researchers said.

It was still not enough. Researchers couldn’t tell if the chimps showed evidence of self-awareness are they simply have the ability of observing visual cues and clues, so another set of tests were devised.

In the second test both cursors moved independently of efforts to control them, with the trackball being unplugged – one a repeat of movements the chimp had generated in an earlier exercise, and the other a repeat of an “decoy” cursor. If the animals performed well on the first test but poorly on the second, the scientists reasoned, it would suggest that they were not simply responding to visual properties but knew they were in charge.

On the third and final experiment, used only for the chimps who had very high scores, introduced a time delay between trackball and cursor, as if the two were out of sync, and a distortion in the direction the cursor moved on the screen.

Analyzing the results, researchers conclude that “chimpanzees and humans share fundamental cognitive processes underlying the sense of being an independent agent.”

“We provide the first behavioral evidence that chimpanzees can perform distinctions between self and other for external events on the basis of a self-monitoring process.”