Testing Concept of Self and Abstraction Abilities in Octopuses Using Distorting Mirrors


Kaitlyn Houk with Octopus

Dozens of species across the animal kingdom including Asian elephants (Plotnik et al., 2006), Bottlenose dolphins (Reiss and Marino 2001), Oval squid (Ikeda and Matsumoto 2007), cuttlefish (Palmer et al. 2006) and Magpies (Prior et al. 2008) have been tested for a concept of self, defined by psychologist Gordon Gallup as the ability to “be the object of one’s own attention”. However, only chimpanzees, orangutans, and some species of bonobo have conclusively passed. This test is described in Gallup’s 1970 study intending to determine if chimpanzees have the ability of visual self-recognition. In this test he painted a mark with “virtually no olfactory or tactile cues” on the head of the animal who was then exposed to a mirror. Animals that use the mirror to conduct self-exploration of marks they cannot otherwise see offer evidence of conscious awareness of the self. This famous experiment is called the Mirror or Mark Test. Concept of self has also been linked to the greater consciousness of the existence of other organisms and empathy for their experiences (Gallup 1970, 2015).

My study will replicate methods from a 1996 Mirror Test by Kitchen et al. (1996), who replicated Gallup’s test using distortion (i.e. fun house mirrors) mirrors together with the mark test. If an animal can recognize itself in a distorted mirror, these authors infer that they are capable of a level of abstract perception. Instead of chimpanzees, I will assess the selfrecognizance and abstract abilities in Giant Pacific Octopuses (Enteroctopus dofleini) and Red Pacific Octopuses (Octopus rubescens). Specifically, I will score and compare baseline mirror interaction behaviors to distortion mirror interactions. Due to time constraints, I will not be able to fully replicate the study by conducting a mark test but hope to do a parallel project with another undergraduate that will be able to do so. With this research we can broaden our interpretation and understanding of octopus cognition and intelligence as well as in other complex organisms - and, potentially, humans.


Name: Kaitlyn Houk, Undergraduate Student

Institution: Alaska Pacific University

Major: Marine & Environmental Science

Mentor: David Scheel, dscheel@alaskapacific.edu

Award: Apprenticeship

Funding Period: 2020