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First, here's some kids being kids.

It shouldn't surprise you that we aren't born with the ability to recognize our own reflection. Self-recognition is a skill that can develop as early as 18 months in children. In their article, Self-Awareness, Social Intelligence and Schizophrenia, Gordon Gallup and his colleagues delve deep into just what it means to be able to identify yourself in a reflection.

So,  you're not a vampire. What else?

The evidence provided by Gallup and his colleagues strongly suggests that the ability to recognize yourself in a mirror is closely related to your ability to conceive yourself as an individual, and infer information about the mental states of other individuals. As a matter of fact, self-recognition typically develops in humans around the same time as primitive social intelligence. In other words, whenever you can recognize yourself, you can try and piece together what other people are thinking or feeling.

On the flip side...

Species that fail to self-identify show no evidence whatsoever that they can infer information about the mental states of other individuals. I'm sure at some point you've all seen a cat or dog look at its reflection in a mirror. Normally, dogs will behave as if their reflection is another dog, and may bark or growl at its own reflection. Cats, from my experience, totally fail to give a single fuck about their reflections.

Is that anot-OH look a floor.

How do we know anything else can self-identify?

Gallup et al. provides an experiment in his article that was done using chimpanzees. The chimps had mirrors placed in their housing, and were given several days to grow accustomed to them. At first, the chimps behaved as if there was another member of their species with them. but after several days, the chimps began to use the mirrors to look at their bodies and groom themselves in new ways. Eventually, the chimps were sedated, the mirrors were removed and they had red marks applied to their bodies in places that were not visible without the use of a mirror. When the chimps were awake, fed, and watered, and the mirrors were reintroduced. The chimps began to investigate the marks, and even smelled their fingers after touching them. Orangutans and bonobos have also demonstrated self-identification skills, while evidence for the fourth great ape, gorillas, is mostly negative.

Do you see what I see?

As I said before, there is a strongly suspected link between self-recognition and the ability to infer information about the mental states of others.

Nails on a chalkboard...

Does this image make you cringe just a little bit? If not, get help. But the fact that I expected this image to conjure up that ungodly noise in your mind is an example of me making a social inference. If the ability to self-identify and the ability to make inferences about others is as closely linked as many suspect, then we can suppose that species that cant self-identify are incapable of empathizing with other of their species. And we would seemingly be correct.

In 1997, Anil et al. observed the reaction of pigs when they were shown the slaughter of other pigs. Or, rather, they observed the lack of a reaction. Besides mild stress caused by the jostling of the handlers, the pigs showed absolutely no distress while watching the slaughter of their piggy comrades.


The Cortex is the cause.

The ability to self-recognize and mental state attribution (infer what others are thinking) is believed to be located in our frontal cortex.

Frontal Lobe, home of the Frontal Cortex. Shocker.

The right prefrontal cortex is considered the prime culprit for self recognition and mental state attribution. In a study by Keenan et al. subjects were asked to press one key if an image of their own face was shown, another if a friend's face was shown, and yet another if a stranger's face was shown. Now, many of you may have heard that the right side of the brain plays a larger role in the left side of the body. In fact, subjects were asked to press the keys first with their right hands, then with their left, and they identified their own face faster while using their left hands.

Self-recognition and mental health.

Schizophrenics will commonly react to their own reflection as if it were the reflection of a completely different person. In rare cases, some schizophrenics claim to see no reflection at all. Evidence suggests that a fascination with mirrors may be the precursor to schizophrenia, as many schizophrenics are extremely interested in mirrors and the images in them.


Many schizophrenics also struggle with the ability to identify what others are thinking or feeling. If a schizophrenic is told a joke where an assumption must be made about a mental state, they will have a very difficult time finding it humorous. Coincidentally or not, people with damage to their frontal cortex also display difficulty understanding these situations, as do children, whose brains have not fully developed yet. There is plenty of evidence now pointing to frontal lobe dysfunction as the cause of schizophrenia.

Putting it all together...

The abilities of self-recognition and mental state attribution obviously play an enormous role in our lives every day. If the key to these behaviors lies in our frontal cortex, as evidence suggests, there are many possibilities not only within the field of psychology but also medicine. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness, and the key to understanding it is within our grasp.






"I just can't wait to be king!" At least, I think so, but I really don't know what I'm asking for.

When Are You an Adult?

Allison James begins her chapter On Being a Child: The Self, the Group and the Category sharing an anecdote in which a twelve year old boy, frustrated by the restrictions of his youthfulness, asked her, “When are you an adult?” James confesses that she did not know how to answer the boy, because achieving adulthood, as many of us nineteen – twenty-two year olds have recently come to understand very personally, is more than simply reaching a certain age. It reminds me of a moderately amusing little quote from Grey’s Anatomy which now exists to be re-pinned on Pinterest and shared on Facebook over and over by 20-somethings and 40-somethings alike who think they’re cute (including, but certainly not limited to my own older sister and mother):

"LOL, I'm so young at heart."
"LOL, I'm so young at heart."

But our silly white-girl humor aside, the point of James’s article actually stems from the concerns of the opposite perspective; of children who don’t yet fear the responsibilities of adulthood, and aspire to the status and privilege that comes with being a “grown-up.” As a musical theatre enthusiast (*ahem*nerd), I thought of  a scene in the Golden Age Rogers & Hammerstein musical The King and I, in which King Mongkut finds himself in a “puzzlement,” talking to his oldest son and heir, Prince Chulalongkorn, about the nature of knowledge and kingship. Replace “King” with “an adult,” and it becomes obvious that the concern is not so much singular to a prince attaining the monarchy, but universally to a child attaining adulthood.

Prince: But you must know because you are King [an adult]!

King: Someday you too will be King [an adult] and you too will everything.

Prince: But how do I learn? And when do I know that I know everything?

King: When you are King [an adult].

Grown-ups realizing it's not all that they thought it would be.
Grown-ups realizing it's not all that they thought it would be.

"A Puzzlement"

In the following musical number “A Puzzlement,” King Mongkut wrestles with the fact that, contrary to what he believed when he was a child, he did not automatically gain a perfect black-and-white understanding of the universe, but actually found that “There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know, [and] very often find confusion in conclusion I concluded long ago.” And yet, disillusioned as he is, he continues to pass the misconception of adulthood to his naïve child. Why is this?

As James reflects on her encounter with the twelve year old, she muses, “He has no doubt found out, by now, what it means to be an adult. I, on the other hand, am still asking what it means to be a child.”

When I Was a Child, I Spake as a Child…

In his 1977 book What Is a Child?, Nicholas Tucker defined a child essentially as under-developed individual, “lacking the competency of an adult” and requiring coaching in order to correct childish imperfections and attain an adult-level of social and physical maturity. Think 1 Corinthians 13:11.

 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

While not exactly wrong—a child truly isn’t as competent and self-reliant as an adult—this attitude towards children lends itself to be more harmful to a child’s development into a mature, self-reliant individual by conceptually separating children from the adult world of which they are eventually supposed to be a part. Later theories reject such conceptualization and hold that the uniqueness of children’s biology contextualizes rather than determines the social experiences of children.

The Kiddie Table

I heard y'all like Harry Potter...
I heard y'all like Harry Potter...

 The most obvious example of childhood contextualizing a child’s social experience can be found at any large family gathering: the kiddie table. Everyone gathers at Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, and while parents, aunts, and uncles all gather around the “grown up table” with the family china, all cousins from ages two to fifteen are sent to the folding table with plastic, or even paper plates. It’s not at all that children are biologically unfit to sit at the dining room table with the rest of the family; in fact, when it’s just the nuclear family eating together on any week night, the three year old and twelve year old have their own places at the table, but when it’s a large social gathering, they are denied that honor.

I can feel the indignation my eleven year old self suffered to this day. “Are my parents ashamed of me? Do they assume I was going to say something stupid around Aunt Heidi? Why would they think that? I’m a straight-A student, aren’t they proud of me? My seventeen year old sister gets to sit at the grown-up table; do they love her more than me, just because she’s bigger? It’s not my fault I’m still small. I don’t want to sit at the kiddie table. Mikey picks his nose. I don’t deserve to sit at the same table as someone who picks his nose.”

This, among many other factors, meant that as a child, I never identified with the “Peter Pan” desire to never grow up. If we’re honest, I don’t think most children do. The Peter Pan –complex, I guess – is something adults, swamped with the stress of adulthood, project onto children. I wanted to grow up; to be equal to adults in respect and privilege. Which, again, was also most likely the result of how adults, not children, defined childhood and adulthood and established discriminating boundaries between the two.

Size Does Matter

James’s article identifies that one of the first ways children begin to develop a sense of self-consciousness is in the observation, and comparison of their body and others’. They recognize that they are more capable and bigger than infants, and that older, even more capable children are bigger than they. They naturally identify personal progression with physical growth. This idea is perpetuated by the linguistic bias of adults adopting this childish understanding when conversing and counselling children. Children are praised for accomplishments and hailed as “big kids” (think of the jingle, “I’m a big kid now!”), and scolded for “little kid” behavior like crying or refusing to share.

I measure my personal progression by my physical size relative to smaller, less capable individuals, and will be troubled for years with insecurities relating to my physical and emotional development. SUCCESS.
I measure my personal progression by my physical size relative to smaller, less capable individuals, and will be troubled for years with insecurities relating to my physical and emotional development. SUCCESS.

The result? The belief that being small is a failure. That children are imperfect, and will be rewarded when they succeed in becoming bigger. Should children be encouraged to develop mature, capable qualities and skills at an appropriate pace in order to grow up into well-adjusted, responsible adults? Absolutely. But identifying these qualities and skills as either “big” or “small” sets children up for damaging self-consciousness as their developing bodies grow and change at a rate not precisely proportional to their developing selves.


David Sloan Wilson is a hardcore evolutionary biologist; Evolution is his religion. That is what makes his approach to studying religion so particularly interesting. Borrowing the term “Secular Utility” from Emile Durkheim, Sloan appreciates and in many ways dissects the importance of religious practices in human prosperity. It makes the reader wonder if religious rules are the source or the product of practices that aided in success. I think his opinion leads more toward the religious rules stemming out of evolutionary success rather than initially causing it. He views religion from an organismal approach, believing the survival of any religion is bound by the same constraints of any organism. In the chapter “The Secular Utility of Religion”, Sloan looks closely at 3 religions and breaks down their practices to their most biologically successful nature.


The Water Temple System of Bali     The people of the Water Temples do not have what most Americans would view as a modern religion or agricultural system. They worship a water goddess called Dewi Danu, and the high priest, called Jero Gde, is an earthly embodiment of the goddess. Over hundreds of years with no adaptation to modern machinery, the Bali have created a huge system of aqueducts to lead water to their rice paddies. At every new branch of the system, there is another subak (a small social unit) that operates in a democratic fashion and has its own deities, separate from the others but still under Dewi Danu. Their cultivation of rice has as much to do with the collective cooperation of the subaks as their individual group cooperation. Big issues like dam maintenance and pest control, along with water distribution and planting seasons are coordinated with the entire community. Problems are carefully inspected, analyzed, and solved by the priests and the subak heads. What surprised outsiders the most is that so much practical wisdom was embodied by their religion. When a researcher asked a subak head where the authority of Jero Gde came from, he replied, “Belief…. overflowing belief. Concerning Batur temple-- really that is the center, the origin of waters, you see. At this moment, the Jero Gde holds all this in his hands. At the temple of Lake Batur.” Their belief in Dewi Danu and her embodiment in Jero Gde is the entire basis of their complex water system. Without the goddess, there are no water temples or unifying basis for the Bali people, and without that, the complex and organized aqueduct system could not exist. The extravagant religion with many deities under the same goddess unifies the Bali under one of the most basic needs for human survival. Food.


To say the Jewish people as a whole have had a tough go throughout history would be an understatement. The most interesting part about them though, has to be how long they have endured; their history is enormous, definitely one of the longest surviving religions. Wilson makes the point that what made the religion so successful is not much different than what might make a particular species successful. Judaism is a fairly strict religion that follows the rules given to them in the Hebrew Bible closely. These rules obviously make a group that follows them more functional and cooperational than one which does not. The Hebrew Bible is a little unclear on behavior towards outsiders, at one point saying to ‘not oppress the alien’ and giving instructions for war in another. On the whole, the Jewish people have remained a relatively genetically and religiously pure society. Their strength in kinship has been a great advantage over the past 2000 years, but also their greatest source of criticism. They have been attacked countless times, but the culture always prevails because of their powerful social identity. Judaism is not a religion that actively seeks members like others, and the practice of genetic isolation goes outside the basic principles of group selection, but this genetic isolation has made their brotherhood grow stronger in the literal and figurative sense, creating an altruistic attitude among the Jews as a community. The strict rules of Judaism have served as a secular utility for the Jews, making their culture withstand thousands of years with the same cultural identity.


The Early Christian Church

The strength of the early Christian Church stemmed from an exponential growth over a few hundred years. Scientists were baffled by this boom until Rodney Stark used comparative analysis of 22 Roman cities to examine the growth by measuring city size, distance along trade routes between Jerusalem and Rome, and the presence of a synagogue around the year 100 to measure Jewish influence. Stark took information that had been around all along and made sense of them. Contrary to what most people think about Rome, it was a hectic, violent, unwelcoming place; fires were frequent and the city was divided among many ethnic groups that didn’t get along. By the start of Christianity, Roman culture was inhospitable for reproduction, not in the sense that babies are bad, but the fact that it was a male dominated culture made the desire for male babies much higher than the poor female babies that were many times killed. The introduction of Christianity was attractive to many women in particular because of the rules governing reproduction and more importantly the greater freedom and status it offered. The Christian teachings also encouraged altruism towards all, consequentially increasing the life expectancy of the early Christians (if they didn’t die of the plague helping those afflicted). Christianity established a more free, less threatening Rome. While that is the nature of the religion, as a secular utility it increased reproduction and decreased violence. A heightened community and belongingness helped the people and the religion thrive.