Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Know thyself, Thyme?

As I was searching for something else on the internet last night, I found an interesting article about self-recognition research in rhesus monkeys.

I know. You're thinking, "What? Rhesus monkeys? What?"

Bear with me, it's not really about monkeys. It's about self-awareness in animals and especially our feral pony Thyme.

Self-awareness is notoriously hard to demonstrate in creatures who can't talk. The list of species that scientists are willing to credit with self-awareness is extremely short. One of the most common tests used to determine if an animal is self-aware is the so-called 'mirror test'. The mirror test is like candid camera with animals. Unbeknownst to the animal, the researcher puts an odorless mark on the animal's body in a spot the animal can't see. For chimps it might be a red dot on the forehead. For elephants they placed the mark on the animal's back. Then they show the animal a mirror. If the animal touches the mark on their body rather than the mark in the mirror, voila, they are said to recognize themselves and thus have self-awareness. Only a few species have ever passed this test. Chimps, elephants, dolphins, 18-month-old humans. Maybe a few others, but not rhesus monkeys, and certainly not horses. Rhesus monkeys (and presumably horses) are like cats.  Put them in front of a mirror, they seem to think they are looking at another monkey, not themselves.

Personally, I've always found this way of defining self-awareness in animals pretty narrow. There are so many other ways in which we humans demonstrate our self-awareness, for instance self-agency. And so I come to Thyme.

The feral pony demonstrated spectacular recognition of her own agency yesterday. I have mentioned that I am (slowly) clicker training Thyme in hopes of being able to one day handle this completely untouchable pony. As of yesterday, we had progressed to the point of having her touch a target when offered. I use the end of a broken mop handle with a perfect round green circle at the tip. I hold the target out towards her, over the top of a gate or fence, and let her approach it. All she has to do is touch the tip lightly with her nose, without mouthing it, and she gets the reward (a click or sometimes a bite of grain.) She learned this easily and has done it repeatedly over a couple of sessions. She's generally calm, slow-moving, and thoughtful while she does this.

Yesterday, I decided to up the stakes a bit. In exactly this same context, with her on one side of the fence, me on the other, the target held out in front of her, everybody calm, nobody moving fast, and everything exactly as before...instead of letting her make the final two inches of approach and touch the target, I reached across those last two inches and touched her lightly myself. Same green mop handle, same small range of movements, same (general) point of contact, but I touched her, instead of letting her touch me.

The feral pony went through the roof. Jumped two feet straight up in the air, turned tail and fled. Her message could not have been clearer. You touched me! Get away from me! That was not the deal! I don't care if it's the same green stick I've been playing with all this time. I don't care if it's the same nose I've been using all along. I didn't do it. You did it. That. is. not. our. deal! Crazy woman! 

And that is what the article was about. A researcher taught rhesus macaques how to play a game on a computer and then showed that the monkeys could readily tell the difference between actions on the screen that they caused themselves and actions that they didn't cause. Since all the actions on the computer screen looked alike, the monkeys must have been able to use awareness of their own actions to tell the difference, and if they're aware of their own actions, they must have some sort of self-awareness. 

Totally cool demonstration.

And Thyme can do it too.

I wonder if I could teach her to play video games?


  1. Neat post! I think animals are a LOT more self-aware than people give them credit for. Your session with Thyme is just another example!
    P.S. If you get her to play video games...make a movie okay?!? ;)

    1. LOL. You bet. She's a youtube sensation waiting to happen.