By April Garbuz, Wilton High School
I had the pleasure of speaking with graduate student in Cognitive Psychology, Justin Couchman, about his recent finding that Rhesus monkeys have self-agency. His studies found that Rhesus monkeys have an implicit sense of ‘me’, an important form of self-awareness. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:
Can you give us a brief overview of the experiment you conducted?
Basically, I wanted to see if rhesus monkeys understood that some actions were under their control. If they had that understanding, then I could say they have a basic sense of self-agency, which is closely related to self-awareness.
So, I gave them a task in which they moved a computer cursor with a joystick toward a goal. As they moved, another cursor moved toward the goal along another path. After they reached the goal, they were given a choice between their cursor, the distractor cursor, or two cursors that were not onscreen when they moved toward the goal. They got the trial correct only if they selected the cursor they had been controlling.
Why are the results significant?
This is the first time that a species that has not passed the mirror self-recognition task (basically, recognizing yourself in the mirror) has demonstrated that they understand self-agency. Rhesus monkeys have long failed the mirror task because their culture is based on dominance hierarchies and, for them, it makes more sense to attack the mirror. My task was a lot like the mirror self-recognition task, except that it did not involve an actual monkey image. It seems that, when you subtract this distracting element, monkeys do indeed understand that their actions are separate from the environment.
Furthermore, several human groups (people with Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and schizophrenia) also have problems with mirror self-recognition. The success of this paradigm means that we might be able to get at the underlying basis of self-agency and self-awareness in order to more accurately assess and treat people with these disorders.
What is the importance of the monkeys being able to recognize their own self-generated actions?
If they understand their own actions are separate from the environment, they may have some implicit sense of “me”, which is essentially self-awareness.
Can you explain metacognition?
Metacognition is often referred to as “thinking about thinking”. It is our ability to monitor our own mental states. For example, when you are asked a difficult question you take stock of your knowledge and say “I don’t know”. This response is based not only on the information in the question, but also on your knowledge of whether or not you know the answer.
Why is it significant that Rhesus monkeys are capable of metacognition?
Rhesus monkeys have demonstrated metacognition in a variety of experiments, including some of my own work. It has always been believed that direct access to mental states is an important part of self-awareness (for example, Descartes said “I think therefore I am”, meaning he was metacognitively aware of his mental state of thinking and therefore he understood he was an individual separate from the environment).
What do the Rhesus monkeys’ failures on the mirror self-awareness test suggest about the relationship between self-agency and self-awareness?
This is not entirely known. It may be that self-agency and self-awareness are two entirely separate processes. Or, I think it is more likely that they stem from the same underlying mental processes. Many researchers believe that rhesus monkeys would pass the mirror task if only they were not so intent on attacking or making threat gestures at monkey images. I think that by showing demonstrating self-agency and metacognition they have gone a long way toward showing that they have some form of self-awareness.
How can these findings be applied to other research or concepts?
As I said, it may be possible to apply my paradigm to people with Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and schizophrenia in order to get a better picture of their understanding of self-agency. Self-agency is also an important aspect of performance. For example, in group musical performances where it is important to distinguish between self- and other-generated sounds. Or, in recreational activities like video games where you must determine which aspects of the game you control in order to reach your goal. More advanced tasks might be developed to determine the self-agency abilities of different groups to see exactly what effect it has on real-world activities.
What is the next step in your research?
My hope is to test humans and rhesus monkeys in more complex environments to get a better picture of how they understand and use self-agency in the real world. Eventually, I’d like to see how self-agency affects social cognition and culture. The main overall goal is to understand how humans came to have self-awareness and consciousness, and to determine the evolutionary advantages those abilities provided.