Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The face in the mirror

One of the most relied-upon tests of animal intelligence is the mirror test.  The idea is to see if an animal realizes that its reflection in a mirror is itself, or if it thinks it's another animal.  A lot of primates pass the mirror test -- if you put a mark on a chimp's cheek and show it its reflection, it will immediately reach toward its cheek to wipe off the mark rather than reach toward the reflection.

Most dogs don't pass the mirror test, but some can.  My hyper-intelligent but emotionally-conflicted border collie/coonhound cross, Doolin, barked at her own reflection -- once.  Confronted with a full-length mirror, she went into attack-the-intruder mode, for about five seconds, then fell silent, and kind of did a doggie shrug.  "Oh," she seemed to think.  "I get it.  That's me."  And she never barked at her reflection again.

My bluetick/redbone hound Lena, though -- who is, to put it kindly, on the opposite side of the intelligence spectrum from Doolin -- spends many hours in the summer entertaining herself by barking at her own reflection in our pond.  "I'll get you, Water Dog!  Get out of my pond immediately!"

She also spent a long time barking furiously at something out in the yard last summer.  I went to investigate, thinking she might have cornered a groundhog or something, and it turned out to be a stick.

To be fair, it was a pretty threatening-looking stick, but still.

In general, most other animals can't pass the mirror test.  Male betta fish, for example, will hurl themselves at a reflection until they injure themselves.  But new research from Osaka City University, led by behaviorist Masanori Kohda, suggests that some fish might be a good bit cleverer.

Cleaner wrasses (Labroides spp.) are a group of small marine fish that make a living picking and eating parasites from other fish.  Such behavior isn't necessarily indicative of intelligence; there are also cleaner shrimp that do the same thing and don't show any particular sign of extraordinary brainpower.  But the wrasses in Kohda's aquarium showed an interesting response when confronted with a mirror.  First, they attacked the reflection, but that behavior died down after a few days (it never does with bettas).  But instead of simply ignoring the reflection -- which might indicate they'd just given up trying to chase the intruder off -- the wrasses began swimming upside down in front of the reflection, as if they were inspecting themselves from another angle.

Bluestreak Cleaner Wrasse [Image is in the Public Domain]

So Kohda and his team wondered if this might be an indication that wrasses could pass the mirror test.  They took some wrasses and marked the underside of their throats, and put them in front of a mirror.  Instead of trying to pick the mark off their reflection, they scraped their throats on the bottom of the tank -- as if they'd recognized the mark was on themselves and were trying to rub it off.

Not all scientists are convinced by this evidence, however.  "True, self-scraping is not a behavior one would expect if these fish interpret their reflection as another individual, but is this enough reason to conclude that they perceive the fish in the mirror as themselves?" wrote Frans de Waal, the brilliant Dutch animal behaviorist in a response to the Kohda et al. study.  "After all, the most compelling evidence for the latter would be unique behavior never seen without a mirror, whereas self-scraping, or glancing, is a fixed action pattern of many fish.  We may need an in-depth study of this particular pattern before we can ascertain what it means when performed in front of a mirror."

The study is pretty suggestive, though, and it's to be hoped that there'll be more research to see if it's supported, or if (as de Waal mentions) it might just be a complex fixed action pattern.  In any case, I need to wrap this up, because Lena is outside barking her head off.  Maybe she's cornered a highly vicious leaf or something, I dunno.


Humans have a morbid fascination with things that are big and powerful and can kill you.  Look at the number of movies made and books written about tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes, not to mention hordes of predatory dinosaurs picking people off the streets.  But in the "horrifically dangerous" category, nothing can beat black holes -- collapsed stars with a gravitational field so strong not even light can escape.  If you fell into one of these things, you'd get "spaghettified" -- stretched by tidal forces into a long, thin streamer of goo -- and every trace of you would be destroyed so thoroughly that they'd not even be theoretically possible to retrieve.

Add to that the fact that because light can't escape them, you can't even see them.  Kind of makes a pack of velociraptors seem tame by comparison, doesn't it?

So no wonder there are astrophysicists who have devoted their lives to studying these beasts.  One of these is Shep Doeleman, whose determination to understand the strangest objects in the universe is the subject of Seth Fletcher's wonderful book Einstein's Shadow: A Black Hole, a Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Unseeable.  It's not comfortable reading -- when you realize how completely insignificant we are on the scale of the universe, it's considerably humbling -- but it'll leave you in awe of how magnificent, how strange, and how beautiful the cosmos is, and amaze you that the human brain is capable of comprehending it.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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