Who's that elephant in the mirror?

It's all over the news: an elephant at the Bronx Zoo looked in a mirror and recognized herself. I think everyone would agree that this was quite a feat. Think how many times you've gotten up in the morning and seen a stranger in the mirror. It's news because it's an important demonstration of animal intelligence.

Read any of the news stories and what you will learn is that this is an evolved and advanced intellectual capacity. Humans can do it, and so can dolphins and the great apes, but most other animals (including monkeys) cannot, or at least no one has been able to demonstrate that they can. Some animals will recognize an image in the mirror as being similar to them, and some will react as they might in a social situation. But it is rare to find an animal that can relate to the mirror image as a representation of themselves.

Obviously, the scientists from Emory University, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and the Wildlife Conservation Society did not simply ask the elephant: so how do you think you look today? Instead, they put a mark on the elephant's face that could be seen by the elephant only in the mirror. They knew that the elephant recognized it as her own image when she repeatedly touched the mark on her own face. This has been tried with elephants before, but never before with a huge, almost lifesize mirror.

There is much that can be said about this capacity: it is a cognitive prerequisite for some types of empathy and altruistic behavior. And it contributes to some types of complex social interactions that have been observed before in elephants.

What it brings to mind for me, however, are a series of cognitive abilities that distinguish us as humans and that we often take for granted.

For example: we have the ability to recall the past and to bring it back to mind. There are some ways in which animals can demonstrate a sense of loss, but there are none that grieve over death in the way that humans do.

We can think about the future: establishing goals, anticipating rewards and maintaining a sense of hope. We can also experience disappointment when our hopes and our dreams do not become reality.

We can develop a sense of purpose or a sense of meaning, the belief that things really matter or that there is some reason for our existence. We have a sense of history and we are able to reflect upon the fact that we exist.

We can also entertain in our minds the choices that are available to us, the options, possibilities and opportunities that make up daily life.

There are some who say that animal behavior is not that much different from the human experience, that animals display emotions and that they have feelings. The excitement surrounding the elephant in the mirror should remind us of how truly remarkable it is that we have such advanced intellectual abilities. We are the only animal that can worry about the past and take joy in our hopes for the future. That is what makes us human.

Perhaps, rather than being amazed that an elephant saw herself in the mirror, what we should be amazed about is the fact that a group of scientists were able to devise a method for determining that an elephant could recognize herself in a mirror. What is amazing is that humans recognize how amazing this is.

copyright, paul g. mattiuzzi, ph.d.