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Mice pass the mirror test. Does that mean they are self-aware?

Researchers have made significant strides in understanding self-recognition in animals, specifically in mice, with the help of the mirror test. This research opens new avenues in neurobehavioral studies while also providing insights into the neural mechanisms behind self-recognition.

Mice and the mirror test

The researchers conducted a mirror test to determine if mice could recognize changes in their appearance, specifically a dollop of ink on their foreheads. To assess the role of tactile stimulus, they applied both black and white ink on the black-furred mice.

While the mirror test traditionally aims to evaluate consciousness across species, the researchers clarify that their findings only demonstrate the mice’s ability to perceive changes in their appearance, not necessarily indicating self-awareness.

The results showed that mice indeed noticed changes in their appearance, but certain conditions were necessary. Mice accustomed to mirrors dedicated more time to grooming their heads in front of the mirror if they had large white ink marks (0.6 cm2 or 2 cm2) on them.

Conversely, they did not increase head grooming for small marks (0.2 cm2) or black ink, matching their fur color. Additionally, mice not previously exposed to mirrors did not show increased grooming behavior in these tests, regardless of the ink’s color or size.

Neural mechanisms of self-recognition

The team pinpointed a subset of neurons in the hippocampus responsible for developing and storing this visual self-image. Senior author Takashi Kitamura from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center emphasized the novelty of this discovery, as the encoding of self-information in the brain has been largely unexplored.

“To form episodic memory, for example, of events in our daily life, brains form and store information about where, what, when, and who, and the most important component is self-information or status,” says Kitamura. “Researchers usually examine how the brain encodes or recognizes others, but the self-information aspect is unclear.”

Further investigation through gene expression mapping revealed that when these hippocampal neurons were deactivated, the mice ceased to exhibit the grooming behavior in response to their mirror image. These neurons also responded when the mice observed other mice of the same strain, indicating a link between self-recognition and social familiarity.

Mice and self-recognition

The study also underscored the importance of social experience in developing self-recognition capabilities. Mice that were socially isolated or raised with mice of a different fur color did not show increased grooming behavior in response to the mirror test. This finding aligns with previous research on chimpanzees, suggesting a universal aspect of social experience in self-recognition across species.

The research team, including first author Jun Yokose, is planning to delve deeper into the roles of visual and tactile stimuli in self-recognition. They aim to discern whether mice can recognize changes in their reflection without a tactile stimulus, potentially using technology similar to social media filters.

“The mice required significant external sensory cues to pass the mirror test — we have to put a lot of ink on their heads, and then the tactile stimulus coming from the ink somehow enables the animal to detect the ink on their heads via a mirror reflection,” says Yokose. “Chimps and humans don’t need any of that extra sensory stimulus.”

Implications of mice and mirrors

The mouse model established in this study offers a unique opportunity to manipulate and monitor neural activity. This will enable a more thorough investigation of the neural circuit mechanisms behind self-recognition-like behavior in mice.

“Now that we have this mouse model, we can manipulate or monitor neural activity to comprehensively investigate the neural circuit mechanisms behind how self-recognition-like behavior is induced in mice,” says Yokose.

In summary, this research represents a significant milestone in understanding the neural basis of self-recognition. It not only sheds light on the cognitive abilities of mice but also provides a valuable model for exploring complex neural processes in higher mammals, including humans. As the study progresses, it could unravel many mysteries of the brain related to self-awareness and consciousness.

More about mouse intelligence

As discussed above, mice demonstrate a remarkable level of intelligence, often surprising researchers with their cognitive abilities. These small rodents possess a keen ability to learn and adapt to new environments, making them invaluable in scientific research.

Learning and problem-solving skills

Mice excel in learning tasks, especially those involving mazes and spatial navigation. They quickly memorize routes and can find efficient paths to reach food or avoid perceived threats. This skill indicates not just memory strength but also spatial awareness and problem-solving capabilities.

Social intelligence

Mice exhibit complex social behaviors. They communicate through high-pitched sounds, some of which are inaudible to humans, and use scent marking to convey information.

Mice recognize and bond with their kin, showing preferences for social interaction with familiar mice over strangers. This social intelligence is critical for their survival in the wild, as it aids in forming social hierarchies and cooperative networks.


Mice are highly adaptable creatures. They thrive in a wide range of environments, from urban areas to rural fields. This adaptability extends to their learning; they can adjust their strategies based on changes in their environment, showcasing flexibility in their cognitive processes.

Use in research

Scientists frequently use mice in research due to their intelligence and physiological similarities to humans. Mice are capable of performing complex tasks, making them suitable for studies in genetics, neuroscience, and psychology. Their ability to learn and adapt makes them ideal subjects for experiments involving memory, learning, and behavior.

Emotional intelligence

Mice are not just mechanically reacting to stimuli; they exhibit signs of emotional intelligence. They show fear, pleasure, and stress responses, and can even empathize with other mice. Studies have shown that mice are affected by the emotional state of their peers, indicating a level of emotional awareness.

Understanding disease and brain function

Mice’s cognitive abilities make them particularly useful in studying human diseases, especially those affecting the brain. By observing how mice learn, remember, and interact, researchers gain insights into the workings of the human brain, including the development of neurological diseases.

In summary, mice are intelligent creatures with sophisticated learning abilities, social structures, and emotional capacities. Their intelligence, coupled with their physiological resemblance to humans, makes them invaluable in scientific research, particularly in understanding the human brain and behavior. By passing the mirror test, mice may even prove to be self-aware, cognizant beings.

The full study was published in the journal Neuron.

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