I’m no expert in animal cognition, so please excuse what’s probably a poorly informed question, but why do so many considerations of self-awareness in animals seem to turn on the mirror test? You knock a chimp out, paint a spot on her forehead, wake her up and put her in front of a mirror. The line of thinking seems to be that you can learn something about her sense of self by seeing whether or not she tries to wipe the spot off. Lots of people study animal cognition by administering this test. For the record, primates other than great apes are rubbish at it, as are pigs. Some aquatic mammals do OK, exactly one elephant has seemed hip to the self, and a few birds have passed the test too. At 18 months, about half of human children see the spot as a spot on them. Is it just me, or is this a really weird (and I would have thought largely unhelpful) test of self-awareness?
So what might be a better test? I thought at least a number of researchers would have gone Lockean and considered memory as a mark of self-awareness. (I know I’m jumbling self-awareness and personal identity, but to remind you of Locke’s idea: ‘“as far as [a] consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now as it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done”.) A brief poke around online assures me that there are lots of studies of animal memory. Some of it’s remarkable. Creatures which hide stuff to eat later have amazing spatial memories (some birds and squirrels seem to remember thousands of locations). It turns out that slugs have a long term memory of one month. I stopped wondering about how researchers worked this out when I read the title of their paper, ‘Behavioral analysis of internal memory states using cooling-induced retrograde anmesia in Limax flavus’. Somewhere, someone is advancing the horizon of human knowledge with a refrigerator full of confused slugs.
I think my question is, why not think that memory is a better mark of self-awareness than scrubbing a spot off in a mirror? I know there are good objections to the idea that personal identity can be cashed out in terms of memory, but isn’t memory a sign of self-awareness? Then again, maybe memory is necessary for a sense of self (see Clive Wearing), but just having a memory is not enough for a sense of self. Maybe all this turns on a more general question, what’s the connection, if any, between memory and self-awareness?