Until recently it was considered that only humans have the ability of being aware of the fact that they exist as an individual, but studies show that chimps as well as dolphins share this ability.

A recent research revolving around chimps strengthens the idea and shows that our close relatives are indeed self-aware and can anticipate the consequences of their actions upon their environment. The research was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B and could prove to have a tremendous impact on what’s philosophically considered human and non-human, as well as provide an important first stepping stone for further study of the evolution of consciousness.

Past studies employed various tests to see how self-aware chimps. The most evident and effective of them involved painting a chimp’s face and then facing him against a mirror – if the chimp would have touched his face and try to scrub the paint off than it proves the chimp recognizes himself. A simple self-recognition isn’t evidence enough of self-awareness, though, so researchers sought to test even further.

Takaaki Kaneko and Masaki Tomonaga of the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto designed a series of three experiments to see if chimps, our closest cousins genetically, can reason like humans in certain tasks connected to individuality.

The first test involved three females. The chimps initiated a video game by placing a finger on a touch-sensitive screen and then used a trackball, similar to a computer mouse, to move one of two cursors. The second cursor was implemented to distract the chimps, and was a recording of gestures made earlier by the same animal and set in motion by the computer. As soon as a chimp hit a target or the time lapsed, the test would end. Here’s where the test becomes really interesting to the point of remarkable – each chimp had to point with his finger which of the two cursors he had been manipulating, and received a reward if she chose correctly. All three animals scored above 90 percent. Wow, right ?

“This indicates that the chimpanzees were able to distinguish the cursor actions controlled by themselves from those caused by other factors, even when the physical properties of those actions were almost identical,” the researchers said.

It was still not enough. Researchers couldn’t tell if the chimps showed evidence of self-awareness are they simply have the ability of observing visual cues and clues, so another set of tests were devised.

In the second test both cursors moved independently of efforts to control them, with the trackball being unplugged – one a repeat of movements the chimp had generated in an earlier exercise, and the other a repeat of an “decoy” cursor. If the animals performed well on the first test but poorly on the second, the scientists reasoned, it would suggest that they were not simply responding to visual properties but knew they were in charge.

On the third and final experiment, used only for the chimps who had very high scores, introduced a time delay between trackball and cursor, as if the two were out of sync, and a distortion in the direction the cursor moved on the screen.

Analyzing the results, researchers conclude that “chimpanzees and humans share fundamental cognitive processes underlying the sense of being an independent agent.”

“We provide the first behavioral evidence that chimpanzees can perform distinctions between self and other for external events on the basis of a self-monitoring process.”

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