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Thinking of office cubicles in the brain may help us imagine how dissociation might work & even be a great metaphor when we start suggesting that sometimes there is a jerky boss in our heads who comes out & barks at employees then cloisters himself away & a whole host of employees sitting in their cubicles with the various personalities that resemble aspects of ourselves that manifest under various circumstances. But this model doesn't really explain what dissociation is. Another way of viewing dissociation is simply as a psychological construct.  Dissociation isn't a specific thing, like love or stress are not specific things. A construct is something that exists in the mind but can't be localized to only one physical object. Dissociation is not the office walls or the computers in the cubicles or even the office flirt; it's the totality of everything & how information flows & is gated in the office of your brain. Dissociation is a concept. This means it can't be nailed down to any specific psychocultural behavior or affect or any neurological underpinnings.

This is important because we describe many different behaviors and activities as dissociative.  Shamanic spirit journeys are dissociative & supposedly involve leaving the corporeal body to commune with spirits on the astral plane (cue the Modern Lovers) or something.

Possession trance is dissociative but involves invading spirits displacing or pushing aside the self & memory of the experience (check out Maya Deren's classic Divine Horsemen).

Zoning out while playing video games may be dissociative if the house is falling down around you & you fail to notice. I used to joke that if Law & Order was on TV across the room, I could dissociate my wife talking to me & the kids fighting in between--I would not even notice them, transfixed as I was on the story-line of the show.

Dissociative Identity Disorder like that portrayed in Sybil or Three Faces of Eve or Fight Club or name-your-DID-movie portray people whose psyche is carved up; some of their "alters" know what other alters are up to, some don't. Intuitively, it would seem these states could not possibly harness the exact same neural hardware, but they do involve similar states of focused awareness, albeit for different reasons.

These are a few of the forms of dissociation that first caught my attention. Many people find the term "dissociation" confusing, &, I agree, it's one of those jargony terms that we could do without. But what other term would apply to all of these states? The obvious response to that, probably, is a question--why do we need one term to describe them all? On the one hand, these states are all historically particular--they are culturally relative & arise due to relatively unique ecological circumstances, as critics of ethological approaches like mine point out.

Spirit journeys, possession trance, DID, & extreme zoning do, however, share some psychological qualities; they partition aspects of awareness to filter, reduce, or moderate stress. So, rather than switch terms every time I discuss the cognitive mechanisms that filter, reduce, or moderate stress, I use the blanket term dissociation, which I picked up from reading Erica Bourguignon & she picked up from smarter people than me before her.

There are only two decent alternatives to the term dissociation that I can think of, both of which I do use, as I'll discuss in depth later, one of which is more straight forward, while the other is way more jargony. The term "trance" seems the obvious alternative, but I argue that it connotes an appearance & is best reserved for dissociative states that are visible to others. The other term, "deafferentation," is one of those cool words you invoke at parties to look like a bookish tool & really should be avoided but has such precise & flexible meaning with regard to neural systems that I feel it shouldn't be avoided under the circumstances.

The best way to understand a concept is to invoke an example. One type of cultural dissociation reputed to enable individuals to transcend the self that is particularly interesting to me is possession trance, & one purported form of possession trance takes place around speaking in tongues.  I say "purported" because speaking in tongues is not universally agreed upon as taking place in a trance state or dissociation, &, based on my observations, sometimes tongues are dissociative & sometimes they're not.  But it usually is, I believe, and its characteristic form--what I call the "excited Holy Ghost" type--almost certainly does.

If dissociation is necessary to limit the costs of self-awareness, as I suggested in Part 2, it is because these costs cause problems, are stressful, & therefore dissociation can be construed as an aspect of our allostatic stress response system.  Allostasis is homeostasis or equilibrium but through change. The concept of homeostasis got marred in misunderstanding, as some static state our body always strives to return to. We immediately recognize, however, when we think about the changes we must go through as we grow, age, become pregnant, modify our bodies through diet & exercise, among other normal habits, that there is no way our bodies could maintain one state throughout our lives. So homeostasis was reconceptualized as allostasis, which essentially means changing stability. The set-points at which things like stress response are triggered change as our bodies change. In theory, as I practice meditation & become more Zen (ha!), the threshold at which I lose my temper goes up, but there is a trigger, & once I've yelled at my kids & see they're sufficiently remorseful (again, ha!), my blood pressure drops back below the threshold & stops boiling. Yes, I am mixing metaphors, but I think it conveys the principle of allostasis.

Allostasis is a concept that is generally applied to stress physiology, but we could think of our behaviors that purposefully moderate dissociation as a "behavioral allostatic system." In other words, we have cultural practices that, whether we are conscious of it or not, moderate the threshold of our tempers & stress response. For my doctoral dissertation research, I suggested that speaking in tongues was a "behavioral homeostat." In stress physiology jargon, homeostats are the individual mechanisms of homeostasis, such as the hormones cortisol & epinephrine that increases blood pressure or the glucose that is released to increase energy. In this case, speaking in tongues is a behavioral homeostat because it is a mechanism that hypothetically moderates stress response. It plays a role in moderating awareness of stressors. While people are speaking in tongues, they are focused on God. In fact, according to practitioners, God has pushed them aside in their minds & is speaking through them. There literally is no room to think about anything else. If you're thinking about your bills, God won't come in. So, your worries are dissociated or partitioned from awareness at the moment you are speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues itself is not the dissociation but what happens instead of the worry or the worldly thought or whatever; it is a mechanism or part of the system though not a direct mechanism.

This system is allostatic in that, I believe, practicing it leads to an increase in daily dissociation. By engaging in ritual dissociation, you train your body to raise the threshold of stress response. The set-point for freaking out on your kids (or whatever) is raised because you're more chill, more zazen. It's no different than exercising so you have more energy--you change the set-points for when you're exhausted & gasping for air & pooping out & having a heartache on your front lawn while mowing the grass.

Okay, so this is a nice theory & all (actually a hypothesis, but that's not the expression), but what about the data? To test this, in 2008-09 I compared the overall rates of speaking in tongues among participants in a couple Apostolic Pentecostal churches in New York to biomarkers of stress response using saliva samples collected across a day of worship and a day of non-worship.  I asked them how many times they'd spoken in tongues in their lifetime to get at that idea of practicing something to change the allostatic set-points. Then I divided the folks in my study into high-tongue speakers (21+ lifetime experiences--most had so many they were off the chart) & low-tongue speakers (0-20--most had never experienced tongues).

If we compare them using just the better understood stress hormone cortisol (I also analyzed alpha-amylase, about which we understand less, but you can read my analyses here and here), we found that high-tongue speakers had significantly higher cortisol across the worship day (suggesting they were more active during worship) & significantly lower cortisol during parts of the non-worship day (interpreted as being potentially less reactive to daily stressors).  This is consistent with studies of long-term meditators, whose cortisol levels indicate less daily stress reactivity (i.e., they are generally more chill).

So, based on one study of one religious group, culturally-mediated dissociation seems to influence stress. This needs to be followed up & replicated, which I'm in the process of doing (over a longer course of study this time), but religion is not the only behavioral allostatic system. What about all those religion haters out there who shout about their equal claims to relaxation? Okay, well, maybe they're making my point, but there are plenty of atheists, agnostics, gamers, & just plain non-religious-non-intellectual-about-the-whole-thing people out there doing yoga & aerobicizing & whatever to relax. Are they getting the same benefits from dissociation?


Dissociation and Human Consciousness

There is little agreement on what consciousness is or how to define it, but most reduce in some way to being aware of inner & external states. This reduces to two essential capacities that are related, self-awareness & theory of mind.  Self-awareness is the ability to distinguish the self from others & be reflexive, while theory of mind is the use of self-awareness to be able to infer the probable mental state of another based on personal experience or knowledge of a similar situation. Therefore, theory of mind presupposes self-awareness. However, no one is either fully self-awareness nor necessarily highly attuned to the minds of those around them. This is not just because they are ignorant but precisely because of the burden of these awarenesses. In fact, research on deception-detection suggests that people may not be particularly good at mindreading (Barnacz et al. 2009), but, I would argue, the fact that we demonstrate empathetic efforts goes a long way in social situations.  Signaling our willingness to cooperate, not our accuracy, may be what is truly important.

Evidence for this has come, for the past 40 years, from mirror self-recognition studies. Evolutionary pstchologist Gordon Gallup, Jr.¹ (1969) conducted the first experimental test of self-recognition by placing a painted dot out of the line of sight except by a mirror on various anesthetized, mirror-habituated primates.  Upon waking, only chimps, bonobos, and orangutans, among the non-human primates, have been able to pass what has been termed the "mirror test," which is the recognition that the image in the mirror is oneself & that one has some schputz in one's hair. Lower primates respond in a consistent agonistic way, engaging in approach/withdraw behavior with what appears to be a conspecific, then calling it a draw & giving up in seeming boredom. Gallup infers self-awareness from this test, pointing out that, barring blind people, individuals who lack or have impaired self-recognition, such as newborns, & people on the autism & schizophrenia spectrums, have corresponding degrees of self-awareness.

Interestingly, gorillas don't fit this pattern &, with the exception of three unique exceptions, fail to respond to the mirror image.  This is important because gorillas are phylogenetically intermediate between orangutans & chimps & genetically more closely related to both the Pan (which includes chimps & bonobos) & Homo genuses than to Pongo (orangs). The exceptions are three developmentally enriched gorillas raised in captivity.  Dan Povinelli, an anthropologist² in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, & John Cant, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico,  suggest this is because (1) self-recognition is not necessarily coupled with self-awareness but is probably a prerequisite, (2) self-recognition & self-awareness are neurologically expensive traits & will not be maintained if the benefits don't outweigh the costs, (3) self-recognition is the result of enhanced proprioceptive awareness that evolved in large-bodied, arboreal primates to safely navigate in 3-dimensional space (think of the meticulous quadrumous locomotion of orangutans high in a forest canopy); & (4) the selection pressures that favor proprioceptive awareness in other large-bodied non-human primates are relaxed in gorillas, which locomote mostly on the ground & have no natural predators (1995). However, the neural hardware still exists & can be developmentally activated in gorillas raised in enriched environments (like Koko).

The suggestion that self-awareness is expensive is largely inferential, based on the relative rarity of it across species & a cost-benefit analysis.  The benefits of self-awareness seem to be, in no particular order, the ability to groom oneself (except for hygiene-related behaviors, basically a social function), scenario-building or imagining potentialities in the abstract (Alexander 1989), being able to take pride in one's accomplishments and strive to better oneself (again, a social function), positive misperception of self (or self-deceptive enhance, which I'll get to more later), self-control (social, social, social), & theory of mind (which is rather important, so it's not exactly a straight-up cost-benefit tally).  However, I can think of about twice as many costs, including the capacity to self-isolate (damn self-awareness and my sense of missing out on things), paralysis of analysis (there are just too many conflicting choices and demands on my attention!), forecast inaccuracy (my wife says I'm not social enough, so I think she'll be pleased if I hang out with friends & watch football ALL WEEKEND LONG), self-aggrandizement/low self-esteem (the overweening self-critic never did anyone any good), resentment (toxic), egotism (ugh), envy (deadly sin, anyone?), & guilt/shame (the flipside of analysis paralysis).

I think all of these benefits are important, but the facilitation of theory of mind may have been the most significant driver of elaborated self-awareness. For the time being, we will just leave that as a speculation because the point I am making is that, though being socially oriented & aware seems to have driven the elaboration of self-awareness, it came with significant costs that are also psychological & social in nature. To manage these costs, I propose a third basic but underappreciated aspect of consciousness is what appears to be its functional limitation, which is the action of dissociation.

Transcendental Medication-AAA 2011 (shortened)

Dissociation is the partitioning of awareness (Lynn 2005).  Partitions can be restrictive, semi-restrictive, or permeable, permanent, semi-permanent, or temporary. The DSM (Diagnositic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the "gold standard" of mental disease & disorder in the United States, now near to being in its 5th edition) conceives of it as comprising absorption, depersonalization, & compartmentalization. I describe it using the office cubicles model of psyche.

These partitions are infinitely flexible psychologically, developmentally, & socioculturally. They are also both biological & conceptual in nature, as I will attempt to explain, but first let me give you a sense of their diversity. Rebecca Seligman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, who I had the pleasure to arrange to meet in 2010 by inviting her to be on a discussion panel I once organized, refers to a "dissociative family of experiences," which I find nicely encompasses what she & her postdoc adviser, psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer, have referred to as the "psychiatric-adaptive" and "anthropological-discursive" perspectives on dissociation (2008).

In the next part, I'll talk more about the concept of dissociation & how I've operationalized the concept in several studies that I have conducted or that are currently underway.


¹You'll soon note I talk about Gordon Gallup a fair amount due to the fact that I studied in his evolutionary psychology lab in graduate school. Though my discipline was anthropology, specifically biocultural anthropology, & my adviser was Dr. Lawrence Schell, I chose to take on the extra work of participating in Gordon's lab because it was the only way I could get the cognitive evolutionary training I was interested in at University at Albany. I ended up there after several false steps elsewhere & due to practical considerations. I was first admitted to the Evolutionary Anthropology program at Rutgers for grad school, where I was to work with Lee Cronk, Bob Trivers, & Helen Fisher, but they did not give me funding. I was commuting from Brooklyn to New Brunswick, NJ & couldn't handle it, so I dropped out. After a year in the Hunter College evening master's program in Anthropology, I took a year off when my triplet sons were born before being offered a teaching assistantship at University at Albany. I'd applied there as the only state school with an Anthropology program commutable from Poughkeepsie, NY, where we'd be moving to get help from family in raising 3 infants. I stumbled onto Gordon's lab by happenstance, after I'd been admitted to the Anthropology program, when John Beatty (see preface) suggested I look outside of the Anthropology Dept for what I'd lost in dropping out of Rutgers. I was elated to find the guy who had done the seminal mirror self-recognition studies there. I shot him an email & told him of my interests, & he invited me to join his lab without question.

²Dan actually prefers to just be considered a writer. While his degrees are in Anthropology, he works in a biology department & largely does laboratory research with chimpanzees. I met him several years ago when he came to the University of Alabama to give a lecture & asked him what he considers himself, & he simply said he considers himself a writer. He said that, while he certainly an invested researcher, his mind is equally pulled toward the community theater he acts in. He said that he had dismantled his primate lab because researchers have not learned anything new in a decade about primate cognition & that, with the immanent extinction of chimps & other great apes in the wild, more urgency should be shown to conservation than lab research at this time. Combining his thespian skills with his primatological research, Povinelli dispense with the typical Powerpoint lecture, brought audience members down to the stage, & had them help him act out the chimp experiments he'd conducted. It was one of the 2-3 best lectures I've ever seen, & it was a shame that it was one of our poorest attending. Incidentally, Dan is also an alum of Gordon Gallup. Though he is typically at odds with Gordon over the interpretation of mirror self-recognition, Gordon helped him set up his primate facility, & they maintain mutual admiration & communication.


Self-Conception and Evolution

I’m going to start off by defining four important aspects of self-conception as touched on in the reading 🙂

Self-conception is the awareness of self as…

1.      An object of knowledge

2.      The subject of experience

3.       An entity that exists through time

4.       A causal agent

In this article John G. H. Cant and Daniel J. Povinelli focus the most on number 4, self-conception as the awareness of self as a causal agent.

What exactly does being aware of yourself as a causal agent mean? Why should we care? And what are Povinelli and Cant exactly hypothesizing?

Well, a causal agent is an entity that produces an effect or is responsible for events or results. So basically it means possessing the awareness that your actions have specific consequences.

We should care because there is not much known regarding the evolution of these aspects of self-concept, and Povinelli and Cant have evidence to believe that number 4 (which they believe to be the most primitive) evolved relatively recently. Ironic, right?

Before we go any further, I just wanted to distinguish self-conception from self-perception.

Self-perception is defined by Leary & Butterworth as self-knowledge obtained through personal experiences and transferred to memory. Self-conception is when you can conceive of yourself and reflect on your own mental processes. It is widely believed that humans develop self-conception anywhere from 18-24 months of age.

There is strong evidence stating that only humans and some of the great apes possess the ability to self-conceptualize. We touched on this a couple of classes ago with self-recognition. Gorillas seem to be the exception to the rule as they don’t show any ability in experiments to recognize themselves in mirrors. There is an exception to the exception to the rule though, as specially trained Koko the gorilla showed some signs of self-recognition. It is unknown if Koko was exhibiting true signs of self-recognition or if she was trying to control the image without completely understanding she was the reflection. Gorillas and their exclusion are important to keep in mind when looking at predictions from this model.

Self-recognition is important in looking at the evolution of self-conception as it, according to Gallup, shows that the species under question is self-aware and capable of conceiving their existence. They have some idea of who they are or what characterizes them.


Schemata (or schema singular) are defined as “internal(presumably neural) states that are triggered by stimuli in the outside world.” They control motor output because of this, are in a sense, causal. Infants graduate from simple schema like reaching, turning head, etc., to a more elaborate form, where they would grab a box of cheerios, open it up, reach into the bag, and pull out a cheerio to put in their mouth.

Schemata are causally connected to an external object or event, but do not serve as a source of representation. It is simply present in the mind.  Mental representations possess a connection with an object or event when it is not present. Connecting these two different things together creates a proposition. Propositions are linguistic or imaginal statements that connect the dots, so to speak. For example, it would be like a toddler picking up a doll and categorizing it as a toy.

Gorillas have the ability to possess schema, but not the ability to relate it to something non concrete or present. So when they look in a mirror, they see an image, but can’t connect the dots to what the image is. They just see it and are like…crickets. They have no knowledge about themselves and can’t draw on anything other than direct perception.

This relates to self-conception as the awareness of self as a causal agent because a species can look at the reflection in the mirror (the object of perception) and realize that it’s actions are caused by them (held only in mind).

How Does This Relate to Monkeys Climbing Trees?

Understanding the evolution of self-conception existent in great apes and humans (minus gorillas) is dependent on understanding when and why schemata based knowledge proved insufficient for our common ancestor and their ecological circumstances.

Let’s look at some theories that will help us better understand primate intelligence and its evolution…

Social Intelligence Hypothesis

·         It is proven that socialized species tend to have more sophisticated mental abilities and are overall more intelligent than those who live in isolation

·         The only problem with this theory is the gorilla factor. There are many species as social as the great apes, but they do not have the ability to self-conceptualize

The Hunt for ‘Nanners

·         Another theory is that the need to find food led to higher intelligence and mental capacity. Milton proposed that the benefits of having to remember where the spatial location of a food source is and phonological patterns associated with this = smarter monkey

·         Parker and Gibson argue that this “extractive foraging” causes the development of higher sensorimotor skills and/or brain size.

·         This theory doesn’t really make sense because other species with the same sensorimotor levels do not use this strategy, and also why would the extractive foraging of some species result in the evolving of higher intelligence while it doesn’t in others?

FINALLY- Cant and Povinelli’s Model

This model argues that self-conception initially evolved as a psychological mechanism to facilitate planning and execution of unusually flexible locomotor patterns existent in the ancestors of great apes and humans. They used the long-tailed macaque, siamang, and orangutan as a basis for their hypothesis.

Can this Branch Hold Me?

A key aspect to the model is vertical tree trunks. These species must swing from tree to tree avoiding falling where there are gaps. They must also be knowledgeable of the fact that branches become less and less stable the farther away they are from the trunk. The less stable branches are where the fruit is usually located. But, all other aspects of these species’ existence is reliant on their ability to solve this locomotor problems.

Body weight is a critical factor as it jeopardizes the stability of the branches and trees to hold up heavier species such as the orangutan. More weight on a branch also means the branch will bend downward, sometimes increasing the gap from tree to tree.

Another factor is that larger animals are more fragile than smaller ones, meaning that they have a higher fatality rate when falling out of the canopy.

Common Locomotion Solutions

  • Suspension
  •  Multiple supports
  • Habitat compliance

Cant and Povenilli also introduce the idea of stereotyped or nonstereotyped locomotion. Orangutans are proven to gear more towards nonstereotyped locomotion as they are at a higher risk of falling due to their body weight. This means they have to troubleshoot and be more aware of their environment because they have more to lose if they make a mistake. Because of this they have to vary their movements more, unlike smaller species such as the siamang or long tailed macaque.

Cant and Povenilli feel that this model best explains the evolution of primate intelligence and self-conception because, in order to breeze through the trees, these animals have to be extremely aware of themselves and their surroundings. The have to recognize themselves as a causal agent in order to survive and get their next meal.

This model gives more evolutionary insight than ever before as to why only humans and large-bodied apes possess the ability to self-conceptualize.




Pia Nystrom
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate

Pia Nystrom and Pamela Ashmore are university professors, researchers, and best friends. They are also passionate animal lovers. Nystrom and Ashmore both received PhDs in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis where they met as graduate students. Nystrom now lectures across the Atlantic at the University of Sheffield in the UK, while Ashmore is an Anthropology department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Though they have lived in different continents since 1994, these two friends managed to write a book for undergraduates on their favorite subject, primates.

The Life of Primates

The Life of Primates (2008) gives the reader an in-depth yet straightforward review of nonhuman primate biology. This includes the social behaviors, environments, and cognitive processes of primates as well as basic physiology. The chapter we’ll be discussing is “The Primate Brain and Complex Behavior.” In this section, Nystrom and Ashmore cover a broad range of topics from they “why”s to the “how”s of primate brains and cognition.

Why study nonhuman primate cognition?

Kiri & Mobali of the Memphis Zoo

Because we ourselves are primates, the brains and behaviors of other apes and monkeys interest us and allow for interesting views of our own neurological evolution and psychology. Nonhuman primate cognition research is highly controversial-- especially in its interpretation. Many don’t believe that humans can ever truly understand the minds of other animals because we cannot experience their perspectives for ourselves. However, we continue with this research in order to answer both philosophical and evolutionary questions.

The philosophical questions relate to our desire to know our position in nature - how unique our minds are compared to other creatures. Those who seek answers to the evolutionary questions examine our closest extant relatives (bonobos, chimps, etc) while trying to understand the evolution of the human brain.

Early Research

Nonhuman primate research began in 1927 with Köhler’s chimp observations in the Canary Islands. He was the first to suggest that chimps were capable of insightful behaviors. Systematic research into primate cognition did not truly begin until the 1960’s, however, and even then most of that was done on captive primates. The biggest discoveries of this time period were from two field studies in Tanzania where the researchers showed the chimps frequently construct and use tools. Later research revealed that chimps have tool kits and that these kits are different regionally. This is more than Homo habilis can say with its identical tools across time and geography.

Brain Size


Though brain size usually correlates with complexity, the discovery of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia means this assumption must be reevaluated. H. floresiensis has a small brain case and stature (around the size of a modern chimp), yet it used tools which were much more advanced than those of chimps. This leads us to believe that the internal organization of the brain may be more important than its size. Still though, primates have larger brains than expected based on body size alone and are known to have more complex behaviors than other orders of animals.

Now the question is why did primates evolve such large brains? The brain is a metabolically expensive organ to run. There must have been a very strong selective pressure for large brains that outweighed the energetic cost.

There are several hypotheses for why primates have large brains. Primates with larger home ranges and which also eat fruit (a high energy food) have larger brains. They also seem to have the most efficient routes between food sources on their home ranges mapped out in their heads - this relates to the expensive tissue hypothesis. Sociality is another characteristic which correlates with brain size. Primates which live in large groups have complex interactions and can use “social tools” to achieve their own goals. For example, many primates use manipulation to gain access to food. This is the social intelligence hypothesis.


Mirror Test
Mirror Test

Researchers are also interested in whether nonhuman primates have theory of mind. However, it is very difficult to ascertain whether or not nonhuman primates understand another individual’s mental perspective. In order to learn more about nonhuman theory of mind, researchers have attempted to study an individuals awareness. If an organism has theory of mind, it is assumed to also have awareness. Though awareness is also a complex subject, it may studied a bit more easily than theory of mind. Awareness can be divided into two levels, self-recognition and self-attribution. Self-recognition is the ability to identify oneself apart from others. Self-attribution is when an individual aware of their own mental state and can use this to predict the actions of others.

The mirror test is the most often used test for self-recognition. Chimps, bonobos, and orangutans appear to recognize themselves in the mirror and use it to examine parts of their body they might not normally see. Gorillas do not react in this way and instead try to threaten the image. However, the famous captive gorilla Koko is said to routinely examine herself with a mirror. This may be because of her increased level of social stimulation. Gordon Gallup, the mirror test deviser, suggested that self-recognition could be an index for self-attribution.

Why do primates need to think?

The ability to understand others’ mental states can create more effective cooperation as well as social manipulation. Both of these lead to gains for the individual. Organisms which can differentiate between friendly and unfriendly interactions and intentions are better suited to realize when they are being manipulated or give them the means to manipulate. These abilities also potentially allow for the exchange of knowledge through observation or teaching.


Tool use has never been so adorable.
Tool use has never been so adorable.

As we learned in the Leary/Buttermore paper, tool use is a very large component of research on primate cognition. Primates are hand-feeders, meaning they use their hands for eating and essentially all grabbing activities. Hands are represented extensively in the sensory and motor areas of primate brains. While not all primates use tools, the grasping ability of the hand makes tools fairly useful in the primate world. Chimps and orangutans frequently use them, other species do not quite as much or at all.

Tools are not always used for food either - they can be used in displays and grooming as well. Chimps have been known to throw rocks at enemies and monkeys often dislodge branches to frighten away predators.

Not only are primates able to use tools, but they are also capable of making them. To do this requires forethought. They must have an idea of what the final product should look like and an understand of what materials to use to make that product. Chimps have also been known to make tools hours ahead of time - up to 14 hours of reaching the goal.

The “how”s of tool use in nonhuman primates are widely disputed. Capuchins seem to via trial and error, whereas with chimps it seems to be a mixture of emulation and perhaps intentional teaching.

While we may not ever truly understand the cognitive processes of nonhuman primates, we can learn a lot about our own evolutionary history from this research. There does not seem to be a distinct dividing line between our mental capacities and their own, especially when in a stimulating environment.


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.