Mark Test of Mirror Self-recognition | Analysis

Critically evaluate the Mark test of mirror self-recognition as a measure of conceptual self-awareness in toddlers.

When adults look in the mirror they can possibly say with confidence that they, as adults, know it is their own refection gazing back at them; it is possible that this stems from the fact that they recognise or hold a mentally represented self –image of what they usually look like, which has probably emerged from many mirror reflections, to everyday explicit beliefs which probably provides them with a representation of themselves. But can it be assumed that Mirror-Self-Recognition (MSR) of conceptual self-awareness in toddlers, can enable them to distinguish from the currently perceived reflected self-mirror image, and their mentally represented self-image (i.e. when a child looks in the mirror they know that it is themselves they are looking at), as argued by Wheeler, Donald, Stuss & Tulving 1997, (also see Wheeler et al, (1997) for an in depth discussion about self-recognition and autonoetic consciousness). However, this essay will critically evaluate the Mark-Test of MSR which claims that toddlers (18 to 24 months) must have a real concept of their own self-awareness when gazing into a mirror. However, there has been some controversy as to whether MSR tasks actually measures conceptual self –awareness, or are they measuring something completely different. Some of these debates surrounding MSR tasks (Lean and Rich alternative interpretations of MSR) will be explored only after briefly defining the ‘self’ and discussing the mark test of mirror self-recognition as a measure of conceptual self-awareness.

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Conceptual self-awareness in toddlers is perhaps one of the most widely debated issues in the literature of Developmental Psychology to date (Rochat, 2003). This is because self-awareness is the capacity to explicitly introspect about one’s own consciousness, (i.e. feelings, attitudes, opinions) and as noted by a number a researchers, introspection is a very hard concept to operationalise because they have to rely on self-reports as evidence of what they are trying to explore; especially in young children (Schooler, 2002). With that said, some attempts of introspection in regards of conceptual self-awareness, historically to the present day, have argued introspection can provide important insights of self-concept in development (implicitly, and explicitly), which can possibly provide answers as to why/and or how they develop and hold a concept of the ‘self’ (Neisser 1998; Rochat, 2004). For example, as language matures in development and a child is able to talk about something, they are probably consciously aware of what they are talking about (Neisser, 1998) and thus probably is able to distinguish themselves as a separate entity to the environment and others. Most relevant studies have demonstrated that toddlers begin to form a self-concept at around the ages of 18 months, and are able to distinguish much earlier that they are different from their environment, that is, their hands, legs, and fingers belong to them, whereas the table when they touch it belongs to the environment. This normally emerges in the first few months of life and is what Neisser (1998) arguably suggested, originates from two forms of ‘self’.

The term ‘self’ in developmental psychology is normally divided into two levels. The first of these levels is the lower level, which is referred to as the ‘self as the subject of consciousness’ such as the knower, the experiencer, and the agent of activity. The second level is the higher and more sophisticated level, which is normally referred to as the, ‘self as the object of consciousness’, which consists of thoughts about cognition about the self (Neisser 1998).

Research does not indicate that young babies (birth to 18 months of age) are explicitly aware of themselves; rather this kind of self-awareness is experiencing themselves as doing things (which are basic implicit or perceptually based aspects of the self) and as they mature and learn from their surrounding environments, from their awareness of experiencing (Neisser, 1998). This then provides them with the foundations of thinking about themselves more conceptually, which normally begins to emerge at around 18 months of age when language is more mature, and they develop an awareness that other people and objects are different from themselves, which then translates into a more conceptual self-awareness (the foundations of forming a personality) (see Neisser 1998 and Rochat, 2003).

In relation to Neisser’s (1998) and Rochat’s, (2003; 2004) ideology of forming a self-concept, a number of measures from an evolutionary and biological viewpoint were developed to measure whether animals had some form of consciousness; this measure is known as ‘the mirror test of self-recognition’ and was first devised by Gallup (1970), to establish whether chimpanzees can identify with their own reflection in a mirror as an appearance of itself. Part of this procedure of the mirror test, is that the animal is usually marked with a dye, and is then usually observed to see if the animal responds in a manner that is consistent with it being aware of the dye on their own body. The frequency of how many times the animal touched the marked area is then recorded. Mark –directed behaviour might include touching the marking, trying to remove the mark with their fingers, or turning and adjusting the body for a better view in the mirror; which is generally taken as evidence of passing the MSR task (Gallup, 1970).

Similar explanations are used as a gauge of entrance of the mirror stage or the conceptual self, which is normally referred to as the belief that human infants can recognise their own reflection in the mirror (Evans, 2005). Most academics agree that MSR implies that children must have a self- concept if they pass the mirror test, and most children start showing mark directed behaviour (i.e. trying to remove the mark) at around 18 to 24 months (Lewis & Brookes-Gunn, 1979).

However it can be argued that MSR stems from much simpler cognitive explanations. For example, using a Lean or a more Conservative viewpoint of MSR, both Heyes (1994) and Mitchell (1997) argue that children match their own sensations with their own visual image of with what they perceive in the mirror. This suggests that one does not need a self-concept of what one looks like. Measures to test this comes from evidence such as the ability to match visual input and kinaesthetic feedback (see Heyes, 1994 & Mitchel, 1997).

Likewise, Loveland (1986) argues that what MSR behaviour measures is an understanding of the reflective property of mirrors, that is, the body parts that infants cannot normally see can be explored using a mirror (for example, a child cannot normally see their face, but with a mirror they can). Loveland suggests that passing the MSR task (marks test) just shows that children have probably learned how to use a mirror to view their own body. Both Heyes and Loveland’s interpretations of MSR tasks do not really tell one much regarding self-awareness, rather all you need is ecological self-awareness (see Neisser, 1988) to pass the MSR task. As already noted earlier, Neisser (1998) argues that self-awareness develops much earlier than MSR evidence suggests. Therefore the MSR tasks is probably rather limited in explaining and validating their argument.

However, there is lots of counter-evidence that does seem to suggest that you do need conceptual self-awareness or ecological self-awareness to pass the MSR. For example, Nielsen, Suddendorf, and Slaughter (2006) tested self-recognition of legs (they developed these measures as a way to measure self-conceptual awareness for appearance). Children were placed in a high chair with a tray that obscured the view of their own legs. A mirror was placed in front of their view which was angled so that the children could view only their legs. In the first of two experiments, a within subjects design was used as the leg version vs. face version. A sticker was placed either on their leg or the front of their hair. It was found that very similar numbers of children passed the leg and face task (18mths olds). This shows that leg recognition was just as easy as face recognition. However, this still leaves this question open as to whether mark directed behaviour in either conditions implies self-recognition of conceptual self-awareness. In other words, does this really imply that infants know what their faces look like or legs look like; so one could possibly argue what would happen if the mirror image does not match what they see?

To investigate this, Nielsen et al. (2006) added another condition called the novel trousers condition. Children were placed in a high chair with integrated trousers (which they could not see). The trousers were attached to the high chair. When the child was placed in the chair their legs slipped straight into the trousers. In the test, only 13% of children recognised themselves in the novel-trousers condition. Nielsen et al. argued that therefore that children do have a self-concept of ‘this is what I look like’. This suggests that mark-directed behaviour does indicate self-recognition and must imply conceptual self-awareness. Children must have a representation of what they look like, which gets easily updated, as they did not recognise wearing those trousers, therefore not reaching for the sticker; the child thinks that the image is not themselves (Nielson et al., (2006) .

So far this essay has suggested that some people do not believe that MSR guides self-awareness (which are Lean interpretations). Nevertheless, there is also some Rich interpretations. Both Lewis (2003) and Gallup (1998) believe that MSR involves more than basic interpretations of conceptual self-awareness. Both these researchers argue that MSR assesses the ability to introspect and reflect on their own mental states (beliefs, desires, pretend play and knowledge). This is more of a sophisticated form of self-awareness, than basic conceptual self-awareness, which typically represents holding a Theory of Mind (ToM) (See Premack & Woodruff’s (1978) paper for an insightful analysis on whether chimpanzees hold a theory of mind). Nevertheless, Lewis (2003) argues that MSR is an early appearance of ToM, supporting the Rich interpretation of MSR; there is a relationship between pretend play which might guide ToM and MSR, which may provide some support for this idea.

On the other hand, there is other bases of evidence against the Rich interpretations. For example, several animals display MSR (however none of these animals display pretend play, and none of them pass ToM (Povinelli & Vonks, 2003 on chimpanzees). Moreover, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also show very poor theory of own mind but they show MSR by the mental age of 18 months, demonstrating evidence against the idea. Clearly there are problems with both Rich interpretations and Lean interpretations of MSR (see Williams, 2010 for a deeper account).

In conclusion the mark –test of MSR has been the subject of intense debate regarding whether a child at 18 to 24 months holds a real self-concept of self-awareness when looking into a mirror. Mark-directed behaviour has been questioned as to whether it measures conceptual self-awareness or whether it is testing something completely different. Alternative interpretations (Lean and Rich) argue that MSR does not guide self-awareness, rather mark directed behaviour can probably be explained by simpler cognitive accounts. Both sides of the debate (Lean and Rich interpretations) also have their criticisms as some researchers argue that Lean and Rich interpretations may not be correct interpretations of MSR, as self-awareness gets updated regularly. Moreover, the ability to reflect on one’s own mental states relies on the early appearance of Theory of Mind and the relationship between pretend play, but this too has been questioned as some researchers argue that several animals also display MSR (however none display pretend play, and none pass Theory of Mind tests). Nonetheless, mirror self-recognition as a measure of conceptual self-awareness in toddlers is difficult to conclude, because although adults can reflect implicitly what they are consciously thinking, this may not be the case for children; probably conceptual self-awareness in toddlers is a gradual process. That is, the more they experience the world and the objects within it, the more they become aware of their own private and conscious thoughts; however this is hard to measure definitively using the mark-directed behaviour test.


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