Self-awareness isn’t the pinnacle of consciousness – it’s just an accidental byproduct of evolution, and a figment of our minds
LOOK into a mirror and you may see pimples, wrinkles or unruly facial hair, but beneath the superficial lies something far more interesting. Every time you lock eyes with your reflection, you know exactly who is looking back at you. The sense of self is unmistakable. It is so much a part of being human that we often fail to notice it. Yet self-awareness is one of the biggest mysteries of the mind. How did it arise and what is it for?
Looking at other animals suggests we are not alone in being able to recognise ourselves in a mirror. Admittedly, it’s a short list of species that seem capable of this feat, but it hints at a possible explanation. Self-awareness may have evolved in only the brightest animals with the biggest brains. If so, it represents the peak of mental complexity – the highest form of consciousness.
However, some people have started to question this idea. Now, an extraordinary finding lends weight to their scepticism: one monkey species that was previously deemed unable to recognise itself in a mirror can easily learn to do so. This isn’t simply another name to add to the echelons of the self-aware. The discovery suggests we need to fundamentally rethink our ideas about mirrors and minds.
The hunt for self-awareness among non-humans has been going on for decades. In the most widely used test – the so-called face-mark test – researchers stealthily apply a spot of odourless dye to an animal’s forehead or cheek and then observe its reaction when it is in front of a mirror. The …