Skip to main content

Mirror self-recognition and symbol-mindedness


The view that mirror self-recognition (MSR) is a definitive demonstration of self-awareness is far from universally accepted, and those who do support the view need a more robust argument than the mere assumption that self-recognition implies a self-concept (e.g. Gallup in Socioecology and Psychology of Primates, Mouton, Hague, 1975; Gallup and Suarez in Psychological Perspectives on the Self, vol 3, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, 1986). In this paper I offer a new argument in favour of the view that MSR shows self-awareness by examining the nature of the mirror image itself. I argue, using the results of ‘symbol-mindedness’ experiments by Deloache (Trends Cogn Sci 8(2):66–70, 2004), that where self-recognition exists, the mirror image must be functioning as a symbol from the perspective of the subject and the subject must therefore be ‘symbol-minded’ and hence concept possessing. Further to this, according to the Concept Possession Hypothesis of Self-Consciousness (Savanah in Conscious Cogn 2011), concept possession alone is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of self-awareness. Thus MSR as a demonstration of symbol-mindedness implies the existence of self-awareness. I begin by defending the ‘mark test’ protocol as a robust methodology for determining self-recognition. Then follows a critical examination of the extreme views both for and against the interpretation of MSR as an indication of self-awareness: although the non-mentalistic interpretation of MSR is unconvincing, the argument presented by Gallup is also inadequate. I then present the symbol-mindedness argument to fill in the gaps in the Gallup approach.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. I use the terms self-awareness and self-consciousness interchangeably in this paper.

  2. See, for example, Gibson (1979): “One perceives the environment and coperceives oneself.” (p. 126).

  3. A report that cottontop tamarins passed the mark test (Hauser et al. 1995) failed to replicate (Hauser et al. 2001) and is questionable. A claim has been made that rhesus monkeys possess MSR despite failing the mark test (Rajala et al. 2010), however a critical examination of the results reveals them to be at best inconclusive (Anderson and Gallup 2011).

  4. Gallup et al. (2011), though impressed with the magpie research in particular, caution against accepting any of these results too readily, especially as in the dolphin and elephant cases only one individual convincingly passed and the results are yet to be replicated.

  5. Shillito et al. (1999) conducted mark tests on two adult lowland gorillas at the Washington D.C Zoo to test this hypothesis. They used angled mirrors such that the gorillas could see their own reflections without making eye contact. The results were negative: indicating that gaze aversion probably was not the explanation for lack of MSR. The issue remains, however, that some other as yet unknown species-relevant properties or behaviour may be preventing a positive mark test result.

  6. Schilhab (2004) uses this expression to describe an organism’s ability to distinguish its own body sensations from externally sourced sensory input, which does not relate to a mental category. In other words, this ability, common throughout the animal kingdom, need not imply the capacity for conceptual thought, but potentially could explain MSR (as discussed below).

  7. Three previously mirror-naïve adult male pigeons were first trained to peck at various dots on the body and around the cage. A mirror was used in the case of dots around the cage, in which the dots were flashed when they could only be visible in the mirror—the pigeons were rewarded for pecking at the positions where the dot had been. Then a test was conducted whereby a dot was placed on the pigeon’s breast and a bib was used to render the dot invisible to the pigeon except in a mirror. If the pigeon bent its head forward even slightly the bib slid down the breast and covered the dot. The pigeon did not peck at the dot unless a mirror was present to allow the pigeon to see it, in which case the pigeon pecked at the position on the bib that corresponded to the position of the covered dot. This result was taken as a passing of the mark test. The experimenters did not conclude that pigeons are self-recognising; rather, they claimed that the mark test was insufficient evidence of self-recognition.

  8. I think the term 'body concept' is an unfortunate choice by Heyes as no concept is involved. What she refers to is better described as 'body schema' (Gallagher 1995).

  9. Used here in the ordinary sense; not to be confused with Brentano’s (1874/1973) ‘intentionality’ or ‘aboutness’.

  10. DeLoache (personal communication) has indicated that her definition is meant to cover both the creator and perceiver perspectives. Here I emphasise the perspective of the perceiver since this is crucial for my argument.

  11. In the Gibsonian sense (Gibson 1979).

  12. This example highlights the point made earlier that we need to consider symbol usage from the perspective of the perceiver and not just the symbol creator, for the squiggle may have been unintentional. For instance, a squiggle resembling the Greek letter pi may have been nothing more than an infant’s doodle, yet later taken as pi by an adult.

  13. Perner (1991), perhaps, would rather call the scale models ‘analogues’. Even so, these remain examples of symbols according to the way DeLoache and I have characterised them. That is, the subjects treat them as symbols by regarding what they see as standing in for something else.

  14. DeLoache (personal communication) has indicated that, to her, mirror images are not symbolic as they do not stand for anything as other symbolic objects do. However, I argue that it depends on how the subject takes the image. Consider a picture hanging on a wall: DeLoache would agree that children above a certain age treat this as a symbol. But now substitute the picture for a mirror (at a certain angle) showing a similar image. Subjects might treat what they see just the same as for the picture—i.e., as a symbol. DeLoache herself used a similar trick as mentioned in the previous section: the ‘window’ view increased the symbolic nature of the scale model. A mirror should have much the same effect. Further, for reasons I spell out below, when the image is specifically of the self, as in a case of MSR, the subject must be treating the image as a symbol.


  • Amsterdam B (1972) Mirror self-image reactions before age two. Dev Psychobiol 5:297–305

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anderson JR, Gallup GG (2011) Do rhesus monkeys recognize themselves in mirrors? Am J Primatol 73:1–4

    Google Scholar 

  • Bermũdez JoséLuis (1998) The paradox of self-consciousness. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Bertenthal B, Fischer K (1978) Development of self-recognition in the infant. Dev Psychol 14(1):44–50

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bigelow A (1981) The correspondence between self- and image-movement as a cue to self-recognition for young children. J Genet Psychol 139:11–26

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brentano F (1874/1973) Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. In: Kraus O, McAlister LL (eds) (trans: Rancurello AC, Terrell DB, McAlister LL). Routledge, Kegan Paul, London

  • Deacon T (1997) The symbolic species. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London

    Google Scholar 

  • DeLoache JS (2004) Becoming symbol-minded. Trends Cogn Sci 8(2):66–70

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • de Veer M, van den Bos R (1999) A critical review of methodology and interpretation of mirror self-recognition research in nonhuman primates. Anim Behav 58:459–468

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Epstein R, Lanza RP, Skinner BF (1981) “Self-awareness” in the pigeon. Science 212:695–696

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gallagher S (1995) Body schema and intentionality. In: Bermũdez J, Marcel J, Eilan N (eds) The body and the self, a bradford book. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 225–244

  • Gallup GG Jr (1970) Chimpanzees: self-recognition. Science 167:86–87

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gallup GG Jr (1975) Towards an operational definition of self-awareness. In: Tuttle RH (ed) Socioecology and psychology of primates. Mouton, The Hague

  • Gallup GG Jr (1998) Can animals empathize? Yes. Scientific American Presents, Exploring Intelligence, Jan 1998

  • Gallup GG Jr, Suarez SD (1986) Self-awareness and the emergence of mind in humans and other primates. In: Suls J, Greenwald A (eds.) Psychological perspectives on the self, vol 3. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, pp 3–26

  • Gallup GG, Anderson JR, Platek SM (2011) Self-recognition. In: Gallagher S (ed) The Oxford handbook of the self. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 80–110

    Google Scholar 

  • Gibson JJ (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton Mifflin, Boston

    Google Scholar 

  • Grice HP (1957) Meaning. Philos Rev 66(3):377–388

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hauser MD, Kralik J, Botto-Mahan C, Garrett M, Oser J (1995) Self-recognition in primates: phylogeny and the salience of species-typical features. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 92:10811–10814

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hauser M, Miller C, Liu K, Gupta R (2001) Cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus) fail to show mirror-guided self-exploration. Am J Primatol 53(3):131–137

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heyes C (1998) Theory of mind in nonhuman primates. Behav Brain Sci 21(1):101–148

    Google Scholar 

  • Lewis M, Brooks-Gunn J (1979) Social cognition and the acquisition of self. Plenum Press, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Marino L, Reiss D, Gallup GG (1994) Mirror self-recognition in bottlenose dolphins: implications for comparative investigations of highly dissimilar species, chap 25. In: Parker S, Mitchell R, Boccia M (eds.) Self-awareness in animals and humans: developmental perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York

  • Marten K, Psarakos S (1994) Evidence of self-awareness in the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). In: Parker S, Mitchell R, Boccia M (eds.) Self-awareness in animals and humans: developmental perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 361–379

  • Mitchell RW (1997a) Kinesthetic-visual matching and the self-concept as explanations of mirror-self-recognition. J Theory Soc Behav 27(1):17–39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mitchell RW (1997b) A comparison of the self-awareness and kinesthetic-visual matching theories of self-recognition: autistic children and others. In: Snodgrass J, Thompson L (eds) The self across psychology, vol 818. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, New York, pp 39–63

  • Patterson FG, Cohn RH (1994) Self-recognition and self-awareness in lowland gorillas. In: Parker S, Mitchell R, Boccia M (eds) Self-awareness in animals and humans: developmental perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 273–290

  • Perner Josef (1991) Understanding the representational mind. A Bradford book. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Plotnik JM, de Waal FBM, Reiss D (2006) Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Proc Nat Acad Sci 103(45):17053–17057

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Povinelli DJ (1989) Failure to find self-recognition in Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in contrast to their use of mirror cues to discover hidden food. J Comp Psychol 103:122–131

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Povinelli DJ, Rulf AB, Landau KR, Bierschwale DT (1993) Self-recognition in Chimpanzees: distribution, ontogeny, and patterns of emergence. J Comp Psychol 107:347–372

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Prior H, Schwarz A, Güntürkün O (2008) Mirror-induced behavior in the magpie (Pica pica): evidence of self-recognition. PLoS Biol 6(8):e202. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202

  • Rajala AZ, Reininger KR, Lancaster KM, Populin LC (2010) Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) do recognize themselves in the mirror: implications for the evolution of self-recognition. PLoS ONE 5(9):e12865. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012865

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Savanah S (2011) The concept possession hypothesis of self-consciousness. Conscious Cogn. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.02.019

  • Schilhab TSS (2004) What mirror self-recognition in nonhumans can tell us about aspects of self. Biol Philos 19:111–126

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schulman AH, Kaplowitz C (1977) Mirror-image response during the first two years of life. Dev Psychobiol 10(3):133–142

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shillito DJ, Gallup GG, Beck BB (1999) Factors affecting mirror behaviour in western lowland gorillas. Anim Behav 57:999–1004

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Suddendorf T, Corballis M (1997) Mental time travel and the evolution of the human mind. Genetic Soc General Psychol Monogr 123:133–167

    Google Scholar 

  • Swartz KB, Evans S (1994) Social and cognitive factors in chimpanzee and gorilla mirror behaviour and self-recognition. In: Parker S, Mitchell R, Boccia M (eds) Self-awareness in animals and humans: developmental perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 189–206

  • Thompson RKR, Contie CL (1994) Further reflections on mirror usage by pigeons: lessons from Winnie-The-Pooh and Pinnochio Too. In: Parker S, Mitchell R, Boccia M (eds) Self-awareness in animals and humans: developmental perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp 392–409

  • Wellman HM, Cross D, Watson J (2001) Meta-analysis of theory-of-mind development: the truth about false belief. Child Dev 72(3):655–684

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


I am grateful to the following persons for their comments on earlier versions of this paper: John Sutton, Peter Menzies, Gordon Gallup Jr., Glenn Carruthers, Liz Schier, Mitch Parsell and Stuart Palmer. I thank Judy DeLoache for her responses to my questions on symbol-mindedness. I also thank an anonymous reviewer and Kim Sterelny for helpful suggestions for improvements to the original submission.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephane Savanah.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Savanah, S. Mirror self-recognition and symbol-mindedness. Biol Philos 28, 657–673 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Self-awareness
  • Self-consciousness
  • Mirror self-recognition
  • Symbol
  • Symbol-mindedness
  • Mark test
  • Concept