60-Second Mind

Dicey Proposition: Animals Are Self-Aware

Researchers continue to search for a way inside the mind of an animal. One promising study looked at monkeys that make bets

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

The New York Times Magazine recently focused on Americans splurging on mood-altering drugs for their pets.

Inevitably, the question emerges: Do animals think and feel? Are they self-aware? Are they…conscious?

Philosophers argue we can't know what goes on in an animal's mind because they don't share human language.

But recent research is breaking down that barrier to find out how self-aware animals are. Columbia's Herb Terrace and Nate Kornell trained monkeys to make bets: The primates wagered on how well they knew something.

Thinking about one's thinking is called metacognition, and thus far it's been attributed only to humans.

In their study, published in Psychological Science, monkeys bet on whether they knew the answer to a question. They won tokens by betting correctly that they either knew or didn’t know the answer.

The monkeys did so well at the gambling that they appeared to have the self-awareness required for thinking about their knowledge.

But researchers don't call this consciousness. They call it self-reflective behavior, similar to programmed robots. The monkey might be linking "a long pause" with "don't know the answer".

(Addendum:  In 2006, I reported from Terrace’s lab and watched Ebbinghaus, one of the monkeys, lose a bet. He’d fling his head back and slap his forehead. I have to admit he looked quite self-aware to me.)

- Christie Nicholson


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