BEIJING, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- For humans and apes, vanity comes naturally -- homo sapiens and their hairier ancestors both automatically recognize themselves in the mirror. The same can't be said for monkeys.
But new research suggests rhesus monkeys can be taught mirror recognition. Scientists say their discovery is likely to help them further understand the neural origins of self-awareness.
"Our findings suggest that the monkey brain has the basic 'hardware' [for mirror self-recognition], but they need appropriate training to acquire the 'software' to achieve self-recognition," Neng Gong, researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, explained.
Scientists have tried to determine whether monkeys could develop mirror recognition before, but nothing seemed to work. In the new study, researchers shined a laser on the monkey's faces -- a mild irritant intended to spur the specimens into using the mirror to their advantage. After several weeks of training the monkeys began recognizing their face and laser in the mirror, moving their hands to the spot of the laser and then often smelling their fingers -- suggesting a recognition of themselves in the mirror.
Once the behavior was learned, many of the monkeys were able to use the mirror in a variety of other unprompted ways in order to investigate other parts of their bodies.
Rhesus monkeys are some of fastest learning monkeys and remain crucial to scientists working to better understand the neural pathways the govern human cognition.
Researchers are hoping the discovery will allow them to further explore the neural mechanisms that enable mirror-recognition learning -- exploration that could lead to treatments for patients who, due to brain disorders like intellectual disabilities, autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease, are unable to recognize themselves in the mirror.
"Although the impairment of self-recognition in patients implies the existence of cognitive/neurological deficits in self-processing brain mechanisms, our finding raised the possibility that such deficits might be remedied via training," researchers wrote in their newly published paper. "Even partial restoration of self-recognition ability could be desirable."