...who's the grayest of them all?
October 31, 2006 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Elephants are self aware (news story, videos). "As a result of this study, the elephant now joins a cognitive elite," said researcher Frans de Waal at Emory University. [Past posts tagged with "elephant" "elephants"]
posted by salvia (52 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wait... are you saying that guy who lives in my bathroom is actually me???
posted by XMLicious at 1:53 PM on October 31, 2006


That depends... does he have an x on his forehead?
posted by lekvar at 1:58 PM on October 31, 2006


No, I'm not you.
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:59 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


Humans do not understand mirror reflections.
posted by crookedneighbor at 2:04 PM on October 31, 2006


"As a result of this study, the elephant now joins a cognitive elite"
should be:
As a result of this study, humans have figured out that elephants are part of this cognitive elite.
posted by winston at 2:21 PM on October 31, 2006 [6 favorites]


Happy the Elephant gives me a happy.
posted by Sparx at 2:24 PM on October 31, 2006


As a result of this study, the elephant now joins a cognitive elite," said researcher Frans de Waal at Emory University.

OK, Frans, answer this one:
Before Mt. Everest was discovered, what was the highest mountain in the world?

On preview: winston beat me to it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:33 PM on October 31, 2006


If I were you, how would you know?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:39 PM on October 31, 2006


How do we know that most lab animals aren't just fucking with us?
posted by jimmythefish at 2:46 PM on October 31, 2006


42.
posted by XMLicious at 2:49 PM on October 31, 2006


Is it Elephant Day again?
posted by Effigy2000 at 2:50 PM on October 31, 2006


Nellie. The Ele. Phant.
posted by murphy slaw at 2:53 PM on October 31, 2006


But are elephants aware of the elephant in the room?
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 3:02 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


Somebody told me recently that elephants have funerals for their dead where they seem to grieve, but I haven't been able to find much on this topic. A couple mentions here and there and some scene from a Jodoworsky movie, and something about an Elephant Graveyard. Anybody know about this?
posted by destro at 3:11 PM on October 31, 2006


42

So long and thanks for all the peanuts.
posted by salvia at 3:29 PM on October 31, 2006


primates.com
The chimp will look at the two important parts of her body that she can usually never see, Dr. de Waal said. One is the inside of her mouth; the other is her rear end.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 3:49 PM on October 31, 2006


this is kinda expected, although pretty neat. In science blogs someone last week was discussing a paper about PTSD in elephants that saw violent deaths of parents before captivity. I have also seen footage of elephants sort of grieving the death of a cub and also of male elephants having intercourse with a dead alpha-male, either to enforce their new dominance or somehow acquire the dominance of the alpha through the act (kinda like human ritualistic cannibalism).... but that's about all I remember :)
posted by pixygoblin at 4:12 PM on October 31, 2006


destro, hippos seem to grieve too. If you watch the special Hippo Beach or this clip, they definitely seem to recognize and mourn the death of another animal. I don't know whether this awareness is scientifically proven or not, though.
posted by anjamu at 4:12 PM on October 31, 2006


I don't see that recognizing onesself in a mirror implies much.

I certainly wouldn't equate it with "self-awareness" or "cognitive elite" on its own.

It seems that everyone ran away with the headlines on this.
posted by scarabic at 4:31 PM on October 31, 2006


Fascinating. The old idea that humans are the only intelligent species on the planet is constantly eroding, what with dexterous octopi, tool-making crows, and language-capable prairie dogs. Lets just hope they don't figure out how to work together across species barriers. I think we're currently occupying a lot of their land unjustly.
posted by SBMike at 4:39 PM on October 31, 2006 [2 favorites]


I don't see that recognizing onesself in a mirror implies much.

some of the other sapient animals would probably counter that they don't see that developing weapons that can wipe out our species (along with many of theirs) and following alphas who rise to the top by being the most skilled liars implies much.
posted by lord_wolf at 4:49 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


Magumbo!
posted by papakwanz at 4:59 PM on October 31, 2006


Mirrors are much more tricky gadgets than they appear to be. I imagine that the vast majority of people who have shaved or put on make-up in front of one for years are unaware that the image they are seeing is a half sized version of reality for example. When I heard about this I had to go and measure - and I am still not convinced by what my eyes told me.

Scarabic: I believe that humans, chimps, bonobos and dolphins are the only other species that have been shown to pass the "mark test" described in the first link. Not many species really.
posted by rongorongo at 5:05 PM on October 31, 2006


I think we're currently occupying a lot of their land unjustly.

Amen!

Sad to say, my first thought when I saw this article was to remember the recent post on elephant anger and the rumors of elephants retaliating for elephant killings. Meanwhile, heavy poaching of elephants and hippos in Congo's main national park means that at this rate, the last 308 hippos there will be killed within a month (NYT, Nat'l Geographic). Best part: the reason they've cut back on enforcing the anti-poaching laws is to keep everyone until after the election. (Aw, let's just let the militias run wild. I'm sure the hippos won't mind!)

(Sorry to be such a downer. Happy Halloween!)
posted by salvia at 5:21 PM on October 31, 2006


I'm telling you, this is just another step in the elephants masterful plan to destroy all humans. They saw that last Lord of the Rings movie and realized that they weren't realizing their true destructive potential. Next they will be commanding an unstoppable army of forest creatures.

I've been trying to warn you all along.

An elephant never forgets... to kill.
posted by quin at 5:29 PM on October 31, 2006


That said, Yay for smart elephants, and yay for humans being slightly less uneducated in our perceptions of how intelligent a different species is.

Yay all around!
posted by quin at 5:30 PM on October 31, 2006


I, for one, welcome our new pachyderm overlords
posted by logicpunk at 5:53 PM on October 31, 2006


I think we're currently occupying a lot of their land unjustly.

Amen!


Chortle. You people are really something else.
posted by kjh at 6:08 PM on October 31, 2006


the vast majority of people who have shaved or put on make-up in front of one for years are unaware that the image they are seeing is a half sized version of reality.

Huh????

I just measured my finger held up against the mirror -- and the mirror image of my finger, and both measurements were the same.

What I am (or you?) not getting?
posted by grumblebee at 6:15 PM on October 31, 2006


#scarabic: I don't see that recognizing onesself in a mirror implies much. I certainly wouldn't equate it with "self-awareness" or "cognitive elite" on its own.

What would you equate as self awareness? If a lady chimp can use a mirror to check out her own ass to see how she compares to the competition is this not being aware of herself as distinct from others?

Housecats when first exposed to a mirror attack the stranger within and eventually learn to ignore the image, not to look at their ass.

The "cognitive elite" that have enough self-awareness to use a mirror to examine themselves currently only includes greater apes (including humans), dolphins, and now elephants.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 6:17 PM on October 31, 2006


grumblebee: Don't measure the image with your finger on the surface of the mirror. Tape a ruler to the mirror. Hold your finger up in front of you so that the reflection of your finger sits along the ruler from your point of view, but with some distance between your finger and the glass of the mirror. You are then measuring the size of the reflection of your finger on the surface of the mirror rather than your actual finger length. Our eyes see the mirror, see the relative size of objects as they appear in the reflection, and trick us into seeing depth in a two-dimensional image.

What you see is your finger, then the reflection of your finger, with the mirror halfway in between (as your eyes fool you into thinking that the reflection is "inside" the mirror rather than a flat image on the surface). Thus, a half-size actual projected image of your finger.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:40 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


Also, this is cool stuff. One more thing to throw into my lecture on mammals for Friday's zoology course. Mammals rock! (Having said that, for tomorrow's lecture on birds, I need to show images of New Caledonian crows making tools, just to be fair...)
posted by caution live frogs at 6:42 PM on October 31, 2006


with some distance between your finger and the glass of the mirror.

Maybe I'm still not getting your point, but aren't you just talking about perspective? If the image is far back in the mirror world -- a distance away from the ruler -- then of course it will be smaller. Is anyone really surprised by this?

If you're looking in the mirror, and you see a TV that's way back in the room, do you really expect it to be as large as a TV right up against the mirror?

Aren't you just saying that mirrors follow the rules of the real world? If someone stand a bit away from me, they will seem to be smaller than if they're standing right up by me.

Am I totally misunderstanding?
posted by grumblebee at 7:04 PM on October 31, 2006


I'm wondering that too, grumblebee.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:09 PM on October 31, 2006


So I just tried taping a ruler to the mirror and I still don't get it.

I stood about two feet from the mirror and held my finger up so that it was parallel to the taped-on ruler. My actual finger seemed to be about five inches long. My ruler finger seemed to be about 2 and 1/2 inches long. Which I guess is what you predicted. But it's not surprising because...

ME ------------ | ------------ MIRROR ME


So my real finger is WAY closer to me than the mirror me's finger. So I still don't see how this is different from...


Me
holding -------- window -------- friend
finger
up

If my a ruler is taped to the window and my firend is also holding up a finger, then his finger will seem to be half the size as mine (since my finger is closer to my eyes than his is).

Are you saying that our expectation is that mirrors DON'T mimic real life?
posted by grumblebee at 7:14 PM on October 31, 2006


Back about eight years ago I got a chance to talk to Gordon Gallup (the inventor of the mirror test) after a talk he did for my school's AI dept. He makes an extremely persuasive case for the mirror test signifying . . . if not true self-awareness, then something of fundamental importance. Cats, rats, and even rhesus monkeys despite massive exposure to mirrors (one entire cage wall for their entire 17 year natural life in the case of the rhesus monkeys) simply never get it that what they're seeing isn't just another animal.

It's the difference between a mechanism which simply reacts to stimuli (sometimes in a highly complicated fashion) and can learn how to manipulate it, and something which has a basic awareness of its internal states and is capable of *assigning* them to external stimuli. It is that fundamental A = B, where A is something internal and B is something external, that is so important, because it serves to demonstrate that such a conceptual boundary exists.

At any rate - humans (generally beyond 18 months), chimps, bonobos, some orangutans, dolphins and now elephants. You'd think gorillas would be on the short list but with the exception of a few statistically anomalous individuals, they aren't.
posted by Ryvar at 8:18 PM on October 31, 2006


rongorongo and caution live frogs are making the point discussed in crookedneighbor's link. The mistake here is thinking of a mirror as being the same as a two-dimensional screen with an image projected on it. The difference is that a screen reflects a single projected image in all directions, while a mirror reflects images directionally, like a hologram. Thus a mirror is optically equivalent to a window on a flipped copy of the world.
posted by metaplectic at 9:43 PM on October 31, 2006


the vast majority of people who have shaved or put on make-up in front of one for years are unaware that the image they are seeing is a half sized version of reality

The vast majority of people who report things like this are unaware of the useful optimization that underlies these things. This 'vast majority of people' have seen perspective at work, they know that image size is not actual size, and they attach more salience to actual sizes and disregard image sizes. This is a feature, not a bug. Paying attention to image sizes only gets you in trouble when you start to move things from one depth to another: 'Oh, wait a minute, the shelf is getting larger as I approach it! I guess my ruler will fit on it after all! I certainly didn't expect that. Heh, now watch what happens to the world when I take off my glasses.'

Note what is betrayed by writing like this: based their answer on the image they saw inside the mirror rather than on the image on the surface of it. Nope, there is only one image, and it has the same angular size no matter whether you think of it as being 'inside the mirror' or 'on the surface of it.' The notional 'what's "inside the mirror"' is a perception, is not an image at all; and (by virtue of the process that has just been demonstrated in elephants) you know that the perceived object exists on your own side of the mirror plane, and furthermore you know what size it is. So the quoted passage tries to treat as comparable 'the [physical] image on the surface of [the mirror]' and the perceptual experience enabled by the mirror; this is the very error the experiment reported, committed in the reporting thereof. And thus tanks yet another attempt to feel smug about other people's stupidity.

What interests me more is why grumblebee has attempted a smart reading of what was written stupidly. Not to single him out, because I often have the same problem. It's charitable to assume that your interlocutor is smart, but I suspect charity is not my (or anyone's) sole motive in doing so.

And now, XMLicious, let me answer your question: The guy who lives in your bathroom has just joined the cognitive elite of people who are actually elephants.
posted by eritain at 2:52 AM on November 1, 2006


What interests me more is why grumblebee has attempted a smart reading of what was written stupidly.

I wasn't attempting a smart reading. I was trying to understand. My working assumption -- when I don't get something -- is rarely that the other person is stupid or mistaken. I've been mistaken often in my life. So it might very well be me. I'm still not convinced that it isn't me.
posted by grumblebee at 4:55 AM on November 1, 2006


I don't see that recognizing onesself in a mirror implies much.

I certainly wouldn't equate it with "self-awareness"...


Erm. What part of "recognizing oneself" is possible without self-awareness, exactly?


I think we're currently occupying a lot of their land unjustly.

Chortle. You people are really something else.


Well, the animal would see it that way, wouldn't it? Any animal intelligent enough to speak is going to have a few words about human-induced misery, I would think.

Reminds me of a conversation with a fluffy animal lover who was shocked to hear me suggest that any conversation with whales would involve more than a pleasant discussion of how the water is today. Not water pollution, (damaging) noise pollution, destruction of marine stocks, etc. Kind of ruined her dream of gentle communion, I think. Likewise, any animal in the serengetti would be spouting obscenities, I would think.
posted by dreamsign at 6:26 AM on November 1, 2006


People tend not to understand that the location of the viewer matters in terms of what is visible in a mirror.

Yeah, that's not heavy handed at all. Are we in the Dark Ages? This concept is consistently reinforced in practice for anyone who commutes in a motor vehicle. Who has not taken basic drivers education, at the very least? They have warnings printed right on the bottom of your side mirrors, for crying out loud. Asinine article.

One elephant, named Happy, passed the final test of repeatedly touching an X painted on her forehead, a place she could not see without a mirror. As a control, when a colorless paint was used to draw the X, Happy didn't bother with it. While only Happy passed this test, the researchers noted that more than half of chimpanzees examined typically fail this test.

Pachyderm pwnage!

Well, the animal would see it that way, wouldn't it?

Yes, that is why those who entertain interspecies relevancy are considered "something else" by this individual, as he is clearly not inclined to perceive matters in such a fashion.
posted by prostyle at 6:36 AM on November 1, 2006


Sorry if I didn't make the point about half sized images as clearly as I might. There is some heated debate amongst some physicists commenting on the experiment that crookedneighbor linked to - including some better explanations than I could come up with.
posted by rongorongo at 8:53 AM on November 1, 2006


Speaking as a denizen of the so-called "mirror world", I find it pretty funny that you people have never realised that we are actually just as real as you - only we're all backwards and shit.

So, instead of treating us with the respect we deserve as independent beings, you just use us to check your fucking hair-do or how your ass looks in those pants.

Well we've got news for you dickheads - I don't have broccoli stuck to my teeth, you DO. Reflect on THAT shit.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:04 AM on November 1, 2006


prostyle : Yeah, that's not heavy handed at all. Are we in the Dark Ages? This concept is consistently reinforced in practice for anyone who commutes in a motor vehicle. Who has not taken basic drivers education, at the very least? They have warnings printed right on the bottom of your side mirrors, for crying out loud. Asinine article. [Em mine]

My snark meter is off this morning, so forgive me if I'm misreading you, but you do know that the mirrors that bear this warning are fisheyed and not representative of the properties of a normal mirror, right? That's why they are always on the passenger side side of vehicle; to provide the driver with a wider field of view than a normal mirror would be capable of.

Apologies if I am stating the obvious, I just woke up and am not all here yet.
posted by quin at 10:26 AM on November 1, 2006


On the half-sized images thing, I found this in the comments to the "heated debate" that rongorongo linked to.
Another way to verify this is to stand in front of a mirror, close one eye, and use a felt tip pen to trace your head. It's 0.5 width and 0.5 height. regardless of distance to the mirror.
So I guess that's what they mean by "image on the surface of" the mirror as opposed to the "image in" the mirror. I think "image" is probably not the best word for the felt-tip pen outline of your head, but I'm not sure what a better one would be.

But, really, this makes intuitive sense, I think -- a standard flat mirror is always, by definition, going to be exactly halfway between you and your "image in" the mirror. Seems like we're just stumbling over (less-than-clear uses of) language here.
posted by treepour at 11:06 AM on November 1, 2006


What winston said.

Funny how a mirror is involved in this - after all, every "advance" in animals' perceived intelligence is really just an advance in our ability to craft experiments to tease it out. And yet since we haven't yet developed the right test for a given mammal to show us they can think a certain way, we go on believing (or at least saying) that the reality actually is that they are unable to think that way.
posted by soyjoy at 11:56 AM on November 1, 2006


...but you do know that the mirrors that bear this warning are fisheyed and not representative of the properties of a normal mirror, right?

Yes, that is why I mentioned it in the context of this position taken by the article: People tend not to understand that the location of the viewer matters in terms of what is visible in a mirror.

Even though they are different in their structure and function I found the notion that humans are unable to comprehend these perceptual shifts as particularly ridiculous. Car mirrors were the most prominent example I could think of regarding an even more distorted surface than your standard wall mounted mirror. If we can deal with those on a daily basis (in conjunction with referenced vehicle positions changing at high speeds) it leads me to question such a broad claim.
posted by prostyle at 12:28 PM on November 1, 2006


Awright, awright, I think I know how to explain this. I have to concur with treepour that the use of the word "image" is misleading.

So forget mirrors for a moment and imagine this scenario: you're standing on one side of a wall that is infinitely tall. On the other side of the wall a measuring stick, exactly your height, is planted in the ground directly opposite from you. What we're going to do is move both you and the measuring stick nearer and further from the wall, then cut a round hole in the wall that is the minimum size necessary for you to see the entire measuring stick.

For the first go, we'll put you three meters from the wall and the stick one meter from the wall. The hole will have to be 3/4 of your height in diameter for you to see the entire stick.

You at nine meters, stick at one meter: the hole needs to be 9/10 of your height.

If the stick stays at one meter, as you move further and further back the size of the hole you need grows larger, in fact it approaches your height asymptotically.

Swap things the other way - you're close and the stick gets further. If you're one meter away from the wall and the stick is three meters beyond it the hole needs to be 1/4 of your height. If you're at one meter and the stick is at nine meters the hole is 1/10 of your height. As the stick gets further and further away, the diameter of the hole necessary to see it approaches zero - all you need is a little peep-hole when it's really far away.

See how the size of the hole is based upon the ratio of the distance between you and the wall to the distance between the you and the stick?

Now for the cases corresponding to the mirror, where both you and the stick are the exact same distance from the wall. If both you and the stick are right up near the wall, say a half meter on each side, you've got a very sharp angle looking down at the bottom of the stick, and the hole has to be half your height (BTW, the wall is infinitely thin).

Now, with both you and the stick at ten meters: increasing your distance from the wall needs a larger hole, except that the "growth" of the hole is balanced by the smaller apparent size of the stick as it recedes. Hence, at ten meters on both sides, the hole is still exactly half your height. In these cases the distance between you and the wall is always half the distance between you and the stick, so the hole remains half your height, no matter how great the mutual distance of you and the measuring stick from the wall. And this is why, to see your entire body, you always need a mirror that's half your height, no matter how far away it is.

See, when you get right down to it, everything is about sticks and holes. Thank you, thank you very much. Please hold your applause until the end of the show.
posted by XMLicious at 2:54 PM on November 1, 2006


I think we're currently occupying a lot of their land unjustly.

Amen!

Chortle. You people are really something else.


kjh, one of every four mammal species face a "high risk of going extinct" and the #1 cause is habitat destruction by humans, affecting 85% of threatened species [pdf].

So, where do you and I disagree?
posted by salvia at 5:11 PM on November 1, 2006


Cognitive elite, huh?

Let's take a look at what the human footprint has done to the Earth: compare that to what's left of the elephants, the kinder, gentler beings.

Perhaps we number among the cognitive elite only because we caught the linguistic virus, and are the only ones who can jabber about it.

You have to wonder what they would say if they could. But perhaps it would drive us mad.

Oops, sorry, slipping out of J. G. Ballard mode now ...
posted by Twang at 12:03 AM on November 2, 2006


Perhaps we number among the cognitive elite only because we caught the linguistic virus, and are the only ones who can jabber about it.
...
Oops, sorry, slipping out of J. G. Ballard mode now ...


And here I was, certain your reference was to Snow Crash.
posted by quin at 1:58 AM on November 2, 2006


It's really very simple, everyone. These are small, but the ones out there are far away.
posted by dansdata at 11:28 AM on November 2, 2006


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