There’s this test.
It was Charles Darwin who thought of it first. He was at this zoo one day, and had had the presence of mind to bring along a mirror with him. And he betook himself to the orangutan cage, and he held up the mirror.
He was trying to find out: was the orangutan self-aware?
The creature made a few aggressive faces. Whether scaring a perceived intruder or playing faces in the mirror, Darwin could not say.
This set psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr thinking, a century or so later, around 1970. He replicated Darwin’s experiment with two young male and two young female chimpanzees.
After two days alone, a chimpanzee was shown its reflection in a mirror. At first, the chimps reacted very much as Darwin’s orangutan had done: but gradually they became at home with their new reflection. They used it for their own purposes. They blew bubbles. They picked their noses. They made a few relaxed faces.
They recognised that the creature in the mirror was them.
Self awareness: the awareness that one is a personality moving through time; an understanding of one’s inner being, and one’s outer effects; an image of what we look like; an empowerment to act; and an awareness of our own character, strengths, weaknesses, desires. One’s very wellbeing.
Humans fail the mirror test until they are around 18 months old.
And someone else has managed to pass the mirror test. Someone else has walked through the looking-glass to reveal that they could be self aware.
Enter Gertie, Goldie, Schatzi, Lilly and Harvey: five magpies.
Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz and Onur Gunturkun worked with these five magpies and mirrors, and reported their findings* in 2008 to the journal PLoS Biology.
They found that magpies -on some occasions – exhibited behaviour which showed they identified the reflection as themselves and could use it to locate a planted mark, preening it to remove it.
It is a seven-league step from there to declaring the magpie has self-awareness; but it’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?
Very clever bird , the magpie. Not liked, at least not here in England, where one is said to bring sorrow unless you salute him and ask after his family.
Is it any accident, I wonder, that magpies have a reputation for garnering little items of interest?
The most interesting people I know have the same proclivity. That curiosity; the ability to see a small shiny trinket, or a nugget of information, as the root of endless possibility: it’s a powerful, and endearing, trait.
My father and mother popped in this afternoon.
As my parents walked in they brought with them a fresh Spring breeze. My mother’s cloud is still there, but it has lifted a little and we are all thanking our stars and relishing our time with her.
The two of them sat down at the table and related their days. Dad had rescued three stout pieces of timber from destruction, from a neighbour, and had taken out various nails and metal appendages.
His eyes shone as he told me they would be perfect for his new radio aerial thingummy.
And here reception becomes hazy. Occasionally, as my father talks about his projects in the world of amateur radio and morse, I grasp it for about as long as he talks. And then he potters off to conquer the airwaves and I think, hold on – what was that thing we were just talking about?
I think the wood will be the frame for an aerial which makes radio reception clearer. It might have something to do with a repeater.
Time will tell.
We talked across the kitchen table, caught up with news, until Felix’s dinner could wait no more. My parents got up to go, and we conversed our way in stately fashion out of the kitchen, down the hall and out of the door.
Whereupon my father uttered a happy exclamation. He stooped down to the floor and picked up a small discarded coiled spring.
“That,” he pronounced, “could come in very useful indeed.”
And, triumphant, he bore the spring off. I have no earthly idea what he was going to do with it. I would wager performing flea circus was not going to be on the agenda.
As my parents pottered off down the drive, my mother stopped and exclaimed in surprise. She was looking intently at the metalled surface. I trawled my mind for possibilities as to what she might be about to say: my mind drew a blank.
“Katie,” she said, (for that is what she calls me,) “Look at this! You have the most interesting stone buried in your drive!”
It is pictured above. You must be the judge.
Final proof that my parents are exuberant, incorrigible, clever magpies.
*Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition
Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz, Onur Gunturkun Institut fur Psychologie, Goethe-Universitat, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Institut fur Kognitive Neurowissenschaften, Biopsychologie, Ruhr-Universitat Bochum, Bochum, Germany