Monkeys Know What They’re Doing


How do you test for self-awareness
in an animal?
There’s that old standby, the mirror
test. So far, only great apes,
dolphins, elephants, and magpies
have been shown to recognize their
mirror images. But scientists don’t
agree on exactly what this test
There are also tests of so-called
metacognition, thinking about
thinking, or monitoring one’s own
thoughts. You use metacognition
when you decide to study material
for a test, focusing on that with
which you are least familiar. Or
when you know you don’t
remember something, so you Google
Rhesus macaques have passed
several tests of metacognition,
showing that they know when they
don’t know or don’t remember
something, but they fail to pass the
mirror test. So are they self-aware?
Awareness of Actions
Both mirror self-recognition and
metacognition involve self-agency,
the ability to understand that you
caused an action.
We humans feel it all the time, says
Justin Couchman, a psychologist at
Albright College and author of a
new study on self-agency in rhesus
macaques. “Every time you raise
your hand, or open a door, or chop
vegetables, or type, or do almost
any action — you do the action, but
you also feel ‘I did that,’” he says.
Usually it’s a conscious feeling in
humans. This is because your brain
has a plan about what it wants to
do and it sends instructions to your
muscles. Then it determines
whether or not the actions it
perceives match the plan. “For
example, you plan to pick up a
banana, your brain tells your
muscles to move in a way that will
pick up the banana, and then you
see and feel yourself picking up the
banana,” Couchman says. Because
everything matches you feel like
you caused the action, and this
helps us understand when we are
responsible for something.
Couchman says mirror self-
recognition relies on self-agency.
Species who pass the mirror test
see their actions in the mirror and
recognize the match between their
planned movements and the image.
Self-agency, in turn, probably relies
on metacognition because it
involves recognizing your own
thoughts (like, “I plan on picking
up that banana”). Humans, great
apes, dolphins, and rhesus
macaques have demonstrated
metacognition in a variety of tests.
“They probably use this ability to
recognize their thoughts, match
their thoughts to their actions, and
thus become self-aware in some
sense,” says Couchman.
Self Versus Other
In the new study, Couchman tested
if rhesus macaques felt a sense of
self-agency when moving a
computer cursor with a joystick. He
showed that the monkeys
understood their own actions and
were not simply visually tracking
the movements of the cursor
onscreen. The results suggest that
monkeys, like humans, may have a
feeling of “self” that helps them
make some decisions.
Humans and rhesus macaques both
participated in the experiment,
which involved using a joystick to
move a cursor. The participants saw
their own self-caused actions on the
computer screen, in addition to the
movements of several other objects.
The other objects either partially
matched their movements, moved
exactly opposite their actions, or
moved about the screen randomly.
The monkeys’ performance was
very similar to that of the human
participants. Both monkeys and
humans were able to identify the
cursor they controlled among all
the distractors. Additionally, the
animals found it easier to
distinguish between their own
actions and opposing actions, much
like humans.
Couchman says the results suggest
not only that monkeys have an
awareness of their own actions, but
also that they can use self-agency in
an adaptive way. “For example,
when physically fighting over some
delicious piece of fruit, you have an
advantage if you can attend
specifically to opposing actions and
make plans about them,” he says.
Ancient Origins of Self-Awareness
The results suggest that rhesus
macaques have some form of self-
awareness, says Couchman. “We
don’t know exactly how they
experience self-awareness, but they
have some access to their own
thoughts and some understanding
that they are an active force in the
world,” he says. “In humans, this is
a very conscious experience.”
The fact that monkeys show
metacognition and self-agency, even
though they don’t pass the mirror
self-recognition test, demonstrates
there are different ways to tap into
self-awareness. Perhaps more
importantly, it means rhesus
monkeys understand when they
cause an action and can even
distinguish between different types
of actions.
“This suggests that it was not just
one giant evolutionary leap that
made humans what we are today,”
says Couchman. “Instead, it was
probably a gradual process over
millions of years that affected many
of our evolutionary relatives.”
Couchman, J. (2014). Humans and
monkeys distinguish between self-
generated, opposing,a nd random
actions. Animal Cognition.
via Flickr.


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