New research by Chinese scientists that underscores the simian capacity for learning shows that rhesus monkeys can be taught to recognise that the face staring back at them from the mirror is their own, a technique that may be used in training human patients with cognitive and neurological deficits. Amy Pollock reports.
STORY: Vanity may not be just a human weakness after all. Just like humans and great apes, these rhesus monkeys can recognise themselves in the mirror. New research shows that although monkeys do not initially recognise their own reflections, they soon learn to do so. Lead researcher Gong Neng says it's the first time monkeys have passed this important hallmark test of higher cognition. (SOUNDBITE) (Mandarin) PROFESSOR AND RESEARCH ASSOCIATE OF SHANGHAI INSTITUTE FOR BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES' NON-HUMAN PRIMATE FACILITY, GONG NENG, SAYING: "We paint a dye on the monkey's face, which is undetectable and odourless. The monkey doesn't know that the colour exists. But the monkey can see it when it looks in the mirror. Just like us humans, when I see my face is quite dirty in the mirror, I will use hands to explore what's dirty on my face. " Gong's research team from Shanghai's Chinese Academy of Sciences used three tests to train the rhesus monkeys. A laser device powerful enough to irritate the monkey projects a red dot onto its face... Then a lower-power laser projecting a red dot with no irritation... And a dye-mark placed on the monkey's face that can only be seen in a mirror. After between two and five weeks of training with food rewards, the monkeys learned to touch the laser dot or dye mark while looking in the mirror, indicating self-recognition. The study is the first in forty years of experiments to yield such results with monkeys. Gong hopes the findings could be used in therapy to help people who have lost the ability to recognise themselves in the mirror. (SOUNDBITE) (Mandarin) PROFESSOR AND RESEARCH ASSOCIATE OF SHANGHAI INSTITUTE FOR BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES' NON-HUMAN PRIMATE FACILITY, GONG NENG, SAYING: "Clinically, one fifth of children with autism, they cannot recognise themselves in the mirror. In addition, adults with mental disabilities, dementia and mental illness also have difficulty recognising themselves. So our research offers a concept or a method that might help them regain this ability. But personally, I think that there is still a long way to go for this research." Not all monkeys passed Gong's recognition test, and some scientists doubt whether the trials prove self-awareness in monkeys. But they're certainly providing plenty to reflect on.