Archive for the 'Mind in Nature' Category

The Emergence of Self-Awareness: The Mirror Test

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

Do other animals have a sense of self?

One common way of answering this question is with the “mirror test”. Does an animal recognize itself in a mirror?

The test was first devised by Charles Darwin who held up a mirror to an orangutan in a zoo, noting how the animal reacted with unusual facial expressions. In the 1970s the test was refined by placing a mark on an animal’s face, and then observing how it responded when it looked in the mirror. Orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos will poke the spot or try to remove it, showing that they see the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves. Bottlenose dolphins and orcas also pass the test. And recently elephants have been shown to pass it.

Dogs and cats, however, fail the mirror test. Dogs will occasionally bark at their reflection, and cats have been known to go look behind the mirror, but generally these animals ignore their image in the mirror. It is therefore assumed that they have no sense of self. But can we draw such a clear line between creatures with a sense of self and those without?

That a dog or cat generally ignores its reflection rather than behaving as if it were seeing another animal is interesting. They do not pass the test in the sense of recognizing themselves in the reflection; yet they do not completely fail the test either. They know they are not seeing another dog or cat. I call this “not-other” awareness, as opposed to full self-awareness.

I suspect not-other awareness is to be found in any animal that drinks from water. As it leans forward to drink, it is likely to come face to face with its own reflection. If it interpreted this as another animal looming close, it would probably back off (and, if repeated continually, die of thirst). For such creatures, there is a clear evolutionary advantage in the inhibition of the “other” response when seeing their own reflection in water.

With the great apes, dolphins, and elephants, consciousness has now evolved to the point where it can recognize the “not-other” as itself.

So it would seem that the evolution of self is not a black or white affair. There are many shades of gray between no self-awareness and self-awareness.

The Connection Between All Beings

Friday, June 12th, 2009

New podcast. Life throughout the universe, evolving in consciousness. ETs. Whales.  Song as a universal medium.

Swim with whales – Tahiti – Sept 2009

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Come swim with humpback whales and their new calves in the pristine clear waters of Polynesia.

Each year, from July to October, South Pacific humpback whales come to this spot to give birth. September is the best month to be with them, when the new calves are old enough to venture close.

Each day, we will take boats out to the whales. Following their invitations, we slip gently into the water, move away from the boat and wait for them to join us. It is always their choice.

We will be swimming close to the gentle whales, floating quietly among them and their young, looking deeply into their eyes, receiving their wisdom. It is a profound experience available to the few people who have a spiritual connection to the dolphins and whales.

It is the opportunity of a lifetime in a very special place with beautiful sandy beaches and coral caves. Everyone will have a magnificent time.

Limited Space: Due to limited space on the boats, only 10 people can attend this seminar, and it is likely to fill quickly. So if you plan to come, book soon to avoid disappointment.

Accommodation: We will be a remote island about 300 miles from Tahiti, staying in a local Lodge — in spacious Tahitian bungalows. All rooms are double occupancy, there are no single rooms.

Cost: US $2995 per person for 7 days (6 nights).
(The Polynesian franc is high against the dollar, raising costs in this country.)

More info –

Pigeon Play

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

It is a windy day. Across the street is a seven-storey office block with a flat roof. Two pigeons fly across the rooftop and over the edge. The gusting wind catches the pair, throwing them around in the air, tumbling them down towards the ground.

Nearing the ground, they fly out of the wind. Then around the building and back up on to the roof. They again fly across the roof, and out into the wind, and once again tumble towards the ground.

Then they fly around again. And tumble down again.

And on, and on, time after time, all afternoon.

Who said birds don’t play?

Rat Smarts

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

Psychologists run laboratory rats through mazes and to test their learning abilities. But this example in the wild beats any laboratory experiment.

Rats had nested in a rockery outside my kitchen door. Wanting to move them away to a more comfortable location in the forest, I set up one of those humane rat traps with a trap door, that allows one to catch the rat in a cage and then transport it somewhere.

I baited the cage with muesli (all I had on hand, but I thought it would do the job), and waited.

After a while a baby rat ventured by. It found the entrance to the cage, scrambled in eagerly after the food. It crossed the trap door, and was trapped. Good, I thought, I’ll just finish what I am doing, then take it away somewhere more rat-friendly.

The baby rat meanwhile scrambled around, looking for a way out. After a while it hooked a claw under the trap door, pulled it down and ran out, and back into the rockery.

Damn. I won’t leave it alone in the cage next time, I thought.

Five minutes later the baby rat returned. This time it ran straight up to the trap. In through the entrance. Over the trap door. Picked up some food. Turned around. Hooked a claw under the trap door, pulled it down, and ran out.

That baby rat had learned in just one experience. No experimenters running it through tests time and again. A natural intelligence as good as any human in a similar situation.

(The third time I was ready, and grabbed the cage before it had a chance to escape.)

Behind the Mirror Test for Self-Consciousness

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

It was recently shown that elephants passed the mirror test for self-consciousness. Along with chimps, orangutans, and dolphins, they recognized that they are seeing themselves in the mirror. However, other animals that may not pass the mirror test in its hard form, i.e. a positive recognizing themselves, do pass a softer form of the test in that they do not interpret their reflection as that of another.

Many times I have watched pet dogs and cats walk past a mirror. Occasionally they give their reflection a glance, but mostly they take no notice. In so doing they demonstrate that, although they may not recognise themselves in the reflection, they do know that they are not seeing another dog or cat.

I suspect this more rudimentary “not-other” awareness (as opposed to true self-awareness) is to be found in any animal that drinks from water. As an animal leans forward to drink, it is likely to see its own reflection face to face. if it interpreted this as another animal looming close, it would probably back off (and, if continually repeated, die of thirst). For such creatures, there is a clear evolutionary advantage in the inhibition of the “other” response when seeing their own reflection in water.

This more prevalent “not-other” awareness is probably an important step in the emergence of true self-awareness.


Friday, January 5th, 2007

We stopped the boat about two miles offshore, and switched off the engines. Immediately we could hear the singing of a humpback whale. I have heard them underwater many times. They are the ocean equivalent of birdsong in a forest; their moaning songs playing in the background, sometimes coming from miles away. But to hear the sound in the air is most unusual. It meant the whale was very close indeed.
So we donned our gear and slipped in. And there were its tail flukes, fifteen feet beneath us. Singing humpbacks usually hang vertically, head down. Swimming down, I could see its immense body hanging motionless below me.
And now the sound was intense. I was not just hearing it through my ears; my whole body was resonating with its song. The moaning base notes were vibrating through my chest. My muscles were quivering with the shrill chirping.
After ten minutes or so, having completed a cycle of its song, it gently surfaced, still singing, and looking curiously at these strange leggy creatures that had appeared next to it. Then it sank back down, head first, to continue singing.
Since then I have listened to whale songs continuously for many hours. (To listen, see below) Hearing long stretches of song, I’ve become aware of how each phrase of the song is repeated with a slight variation, progressively transforming the phrase into something completely different, and then continuing to transform until it ends up back where it started. That is one complete cycle. The next cycle is a slightly different variation, and the next slightly different again.
Listening to the singing I have began to get a sense for how it might feel to be a whale. It could, of course, all be anthropocentric projection, nevertheless, when I hear those long yearning calls, or those bubbling stochato chirps, I imagine that the way I feel is the way the whale feels. Whalesong is a window into the whale soul.


Listen to whalesong. There’s a hydrophone hanging from a buoy off the coast of Kihei in Maui, which broadcasts live whalesong on the net.
More info at

Group Mind in Flocks of Birds

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

The water pipits have just returned for their winter sojourn.  In the morning they often skim the water in flocks of 50 to a 100, turning this way, then that, seemingly as a whole.
Many times I’ve watched flocks of birds wheeling together, and wondered if this is truly a collective phenomenon, a consequence of some group mind, or whether some message passes through the flock too fast for me to notice. Water pipits provide an opportunity to consider this more closely. They are brownish on top, but pale underneath. When the flock turns it changes from brown to pale, or vice versa.
If the message to turn was propagating through the flock in some manner, then it would take a small, but finite, time to do so. I should be able to see this as a color change sweeping through the flock. Time and again, I have watched closely looking for such a change, but all I ever see is an instantaneous shift in color.
The flicker rate of the human eye (and brain) is around 1/20 sec. Events slower than this are seen as separate; faster and they appear at the same time. (Films and television present images faster than the flicker rate, so that you see the image moving smoothly.) So if there is any propagation of information through the flock, it must all take place in less than 1/20 sec, or else I’d see the change as a rapid sweep of color.
This doesn’t prove it is a collective phenomenon; it may be that information is propagated much faster than my eye can detect. It would be interesting to take a high speed film of them—at 100 frames/sec, or even 1000—and see if there is any shift across frames. If there is no discernable movement of the color change at that speed, we would have very good evidence for a group mind. (Anyone have a high-speed camera they want to loan me? )

Pete’s Pond

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

This is one of the most fascinating webcams I know. It is focused on Pete’s Pond (nothing to do with me) — a watering hole in Botswana. In recent days I’ve seen lions, elephants, monkeys, various deer, crocodile, umpteen species of bird, and more.
You can access it at:

Or open the following directly in RealPlayer to get a version without the web page, and expandable to whole screen, which is nice.

How does the rest of the world feel about us?

Thursday, July 27th, 2006

How does the rest of the world feel about us? I don’t mean what do the French think of Americans? Or what do the Yamamani of Amazonia think of Western civilization? But what do all the other creatures on this planet think of us? Or perhaps I should ask what do they feel about us, or sense about us? Most animals do not think in the way that we think; in words, talking to ourselves inside our heads, working things out, making plans, analyzing. The majority probably do not even feel in the sense that we do. But they do sense something. They do react differently to us than they do to their fellow species.
I’ve watched sparrows land on the back of sheep. Yet if walk within a few feet of a sheep, it backs away. The seal sunning itself on a rock across the way allows a white heron to step past without flinching. The heron came from behind, and stealthily, with no warning. Yet if try creeping up on a seal, it sense something amiss before I get within ten feet of it, and without hesitation dives into the safety of the sea. (Creeping Up on a Seal)
What is it they all sense? At a most general level; Danger. They all avoid close contact with us; they all take off.
Is it that evolution has taught them that this two-legged creature is the indiscriminate hunter. It hunts not only for food, but for hide, oil, teeth, gut, turning other creatures into products. And sometimes hunts purely for its own pleasure. This might explain why the seal avoids us, and the deer and the bear. They may have it hard-wired into their genes. But the heron too avoids me. When I approach closer than about fifteen feet, it takes off. What of the mole emerging from the soil, that will dodge around a horse’s hook, but scurry back into its hole when it sees me? And what of the butterfly that seems to land almost anywhere except me. I don’t recall humans hunting butterflies in any significant way. They all sense something.
Maybe we too have that sensing. We share the same evolutionary history, so probably share similar capacities. But we’ve filled our minds with so much stuff – thinking, worrying, planning, and many other “human” qualities – we no longer sense these subtle intuitions about the natural world. Maybe that is why so many of us are drawn to the natural world. It represents the world before humans came on the scene. Why we revere people like Saint Francis, who, if tales are true, was so pure in heart and intention, other creatures no longer feared him.
Yet here we stand, feeling we are somehow superior, that we have dominion over other species – whether through our cleverness, knowledge, or technology – yet missing what may be a universal sense among all creatures.
If I were one of them, I’d certainly be wary of humans. I’d probably also feel sad. Sad that things have come to this. That this young upstart of a species has so alienated itself from the natural world that most the other creatures know to step back and avoid it.