When I had my bookstore, Baci Lounge in Newmarket, one of my favorite novels was ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.’ This was a debut novel by David Wroblewski, in 2008. Oprah (who needs no surname) chose it for her book club and it became an instant New York Times bestseller. In this book, there is a passage about a mirror:
“That mirror, that's one I hate to let go, he said. That was my daughter's the whole time she was growing up. It probably seen her more than me--everything from a baby up to twenty years old. Sometimes I wonder if all that might still be inside it. Got to make an impression on a thing, reflecting the same person every day.”
Yesterday I was talking to my daughter, who is away at varsity, on Skype. Every time she noticed our dog lurking in the background, she’d whistle or say ‘Zack’ and he’d recognize her voice and dash upstairs to the front door, thinking ‘his sister’ was back! On another occasion, I was speaking to my parents, who are presently overseas. Try as I might, I cannot get him to understand that the images we were seeing on the screen were his ‘grandparents.’
Why can’t dogs see themselves in a mirror? Part of the reason is that dog depends on smell for recognition – therefore, while they can see a Skype image, it is not real – especially without the smell of the person they associate with that image.
Researchers tested various animals’ ability to detect themselves in a mirror. As part of an experiment, they put of blob of red paint on a chimpanzee’s forehead. Upon looking at their mirror image, chimps would touch their foreheads, and then try to lick their fingers to analyze the red paint. Chimps obviously passed the mirror test, whereas monkeys and even other apes like gorillas do not. Likewise, a dog has never been show to pass ‘the mirror test.’ This is because dogs primarily communicate via scents, and smell recognition is more important than a visual recognition for a canine. But there are other reasons.
Among animals – other than apes like chimpanzees, only a few have passed the mirror-test: dolphins, elephants, and magpies!
Medically, there is a condition what is called ‘blindsight’—these patients have damage to the occipital cortex and therefore have an inability to see, even though their visual system (e.g. eyes, optic nerves etc.) remains intact. But neurologists now know that these people can teach themselves to ‘guess’ the location of various objects – these people can have ‘vision’, except it is now unconscious, rather than a sense to be perceived; rather like a mirror image.
To have self-recognition, one needs a ‘sense of self.’ Jacques Marie Émile Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and follower of Sigmund Freud spoke about ‘The mirror stage’ – a period when a child is 18 months old -- when for the first time a child realizes that it is different from others. It takes a human baby 18-24 months to figure a mirror out. Psychologists now attribute this mirror stage as the beginning of language skills. This is why a child may say a few words earlier, but it would be rare for a child to speak fluently before this age.
Freud viewed photographs as ‘mirrors of memory’ and his library was full of photographs. For example, he would note that for humans a photograph of a ruined temple would convey a sense of loss. Dog’s don’t have this ability -- if we saw a dog with a thorn in its paw squealing in pain, we’d empathize and feel sorry, just as we would for a child. Veterinary studies show that while dogs feel pain like humans, they are virtually oblivious to signs of pain and distress in other dogs. In other words, they cannot ‘mirror’ their pain on others or vice versa. They may note another dog is in distress by its type of bark, but if a vet is sticking needles or tubes into another dog, they don’t seem to notice.
The other animal psychology view on why a dog cannot see itself in the mirror is that a dog thinks everyone else is also a dog, and has no ego or need to preen in front of a mirror. Dogs love us irrespective of how we look. As far as they are concerned we are also dogs -- even if we smell a bit strange, and we may as well be shaped like a blob.