29 Mar 2011

The moment of self-awareness

Posted by jofr

Humor and self-awareness are uniquely human, and they are both hardly accessible to scientific investigations. They make us human. And yet the feeling of self-awareness is deeply magic and mysterious. Why? If consciousness of the self is beyond comprehension for many of the best researchers and philosophers, how can a four-year old acquire it ? Maybe the answer is that the question of consciousness and self-awareness is related to an equation that can’t be solved – only by imaginary units. In Mathematics, the square root of -1 can only be solved by postulating an imaginary number i. Similarly, the “That = me” equation of self-awareness can only be solved by postulating an imaginary entity named self. Consciousness and the illusion of the self emerge when universes meet and worlds collide.

Initial Position – The Problem

It all starts with language, the key tool of Philosophers. Although it may appear ordinary to us, language is the reason why humans are so different from all other animals. It allows us to understand the world. Language enables us to step back from the current experience of the world in which we are caught up, to turn ourselves from subjects into objects.

As soon as we are able to understand language, we start to wonder who we are, where we come from, etc. In this puzzle of consciousness, the moment of self-awareness is at the heart of the problem. Some philosophers say the core problem is the mind-body problem and the ghost in the machine. Is is right to ask how the mental arises from the physical? Or how the mental is connected to the physical? George Berkeley said it is important to ask the right questions

Upon the whole, I am inclined to think that the far greater part,
if not all, of those difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers, and
blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to our selves. That we
have first raised a dust, and then complain, we cannot see.
~George Berkeley

We ask how the mental is connected to the physical and material, although the brain consists of nothing but connections! It contains billions and billions of connections. It is nothing else but a connection machine. And we ask how the mental arises from the physical although each of us spends at least 18 years of perpetual learning, where we do nothing else but testing, forming and storing new mental structures.

Maybe it is more useful to ask where the perplexity during moments of self-awareness comes from in the first place, without postulating any abstract objects or substances. Each of us has experienced the perplexity and confusion during “That’s me” moments of self-awareness, when the internal first person point of view collides with the external third person point of view. In his book “The Problem of Consciousness” Colin McGinn says “there is something terminal about our perplexity”. During our development, the web of beliefs (or words) becomes so detailed and fine that we can recognize ourselves in it. Yet this insight will always be accompanied by confusion: if the brain could comprehend itself directly, wouldn’t it be like a fishing net which is somehow identified with one of the fishes it catches? Gilbert Ryle argues in “The concept of mind”:

“Should I, or should I not, put my knowing self down on my list of the sorts
of things that I can have knowledge of? If I say ‘no’, it seems to reduce my
knowing self to a theoretically infertile mystery, yet if I say ‘yes’, it seems
to reduce the fishing-net to one of the fishes which it itself catches”
~Gilbert Ryle

The Moment of Awareness

This insight in confusion is essential for the magic of self-awareness. It is the reason why the moment of self-awareness is so special. Insight and confusion seem to be coupled: the larger the insight, the larger the confusion. Maybe this is the reason why the smartest scientists and philosophers have difficulties to explain consciousness, while every four year old can acquire it. The moment of self-awareness is a moment

  • of insight in confusion and awe in desparation. It is like noticing an equation – the “That = me” equation – that can’t be solved. The recognition of the equation leads to insight. The inability to solve it causes confusion.
  • where a joint venture of nature and culture is formed. The mind is like a joint venture of nature and culture, body and soul, or genes and memes. The first moment of self-awareness is the most special. It is the moment where the joint venture begins and the mind emerges.
  • where universes meet and worlds collide. Mitchel Resnick asked in his book “Turtles, termites and traffic jams” (The MIT Press, 1994) “How can a mind emerge from a collection of mindless parts” ? It can not. At least in humans, it emerges from countless mindful parts which meet countless biological parts in a wonderful collision of different worlds, when universes meet and worlds collide.
  • where a person starts to exist. The existence is based on a permanent correlation or connection between different worlds. It is the point in time when the consciousness of the self emerges.

Self-awareness is the moment of the most important insight, where our minds start to emerge and where we recognize ourselves. Insights are astonishing and surprising, and the first insight about the own self is astonishing. And yet self-awareness is also a moment of ultimate confusion: everything seems to equal nothing, significance seems to equal insignificance, variety seems to equal unity.

Me or not me ?

During that’s me moments of self-awarness we combine external objects (an image, a name, etc.) with the world of internal thoughts. We setup an “That = me” equation which connects two different sides. One side is external and ojective world (“that”), the other side is internal and subjective world (“me”). The equation may appear in different varieties..

  • The image in the mirror – That’s me
  • The person on the picture – That’s me
  • The (spoken|written) name – That’s me
  • The person with this name – That’s me
  • The actor in the story – That’s me
  • The person who has done x,y,z – That’s me

..but the basic underlying “That = me” equation is always the same. It is becomes possible by using language: just like mathematics makes mathematical equations possible, language enables to understand all kind of statements and equations. Language allows subjects to view themselves from a distance – as actors in an external world. It allows us to make statements, equations, correlations, analogies, and metaphors.

The fundamental “That is me” correlation is special, it enables us to reason about ourselves, and it allows us to use the whole world of cultural objects to examine the own person. Paradoxically we are not able to solve the basic equation, although it gives us the greatest insight of all, the insight of our own existence. To solve it would mean to understand the nature of our own existence. We are not able to solve the basic equation, unless we are postulating an imaginary “Self”, similar to the physical self which characterizes the biological body. This imaginary self is supposed to be the center of all what is going on inside one person (Daniel Dennett’s “Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity”). Such a self isn’t real. It’s an imaginary object. If we add this additional dimension to the problem, then the gap between the different worlds can be bridged.

“That – Other/Foreign – Objective” – refers to external world of objects, real things, while “Me – Myself/Own Body – Subjective” – refers to internal world of thoughts, memories, and subjective experiences. Outside and inside world collide, objective and subjective experiences mix. The “Me/Not Me” category is one of the most fundamental cognitive structures. If something belongs to me or my own body directly or not is one of the first and most fundamental things we learn. And suddenly, both parts of the category seem to be connected, and the confusion starts.

This confusion starts with the first recognition of the own person and the own name. But it does not stop with more complicated thoughts about the self, for instance THE SELF IS A PERSON metaphors. We only get used to this confusion and contradictions. According to Sidney Shoemaker (1968), a certain subset of thoughts about oneself, which contains the self-aware thoughts about oneself, is immune to error through misidentification. Could it be that the immunity to error through misidentification comes from the attempt to tolerate inconsistencies from metaphors which involve the self? One feature about metaphors is that we gain insights from them by understanding one thing in terms of another. Another is that we must tolerate inconsistencies. Metaphors are associated with insights but also with confusions with arise from contradicting and constraining components. Some aspects of a metaphor are true, others are false. The immunity against errors which Shoemaker has observed may come from the attempt to ignore the false and confusing aspects.

This double aspect of insight in confusion which seems to be an essential part of self-awareness is partly responsible for the puzzling feeling caused by it.

Everything or Nothing ?

During every moment and every thought, our brain asks itself if it matters or not. We care only about those things which matter. The self makes a difference. It means everything and nothing. Self-awareness combines everything and nothing, variety and unity, significance and insignificance.

From the outer point of view, as a person, I am only one a single, unified entity, which is described by a single name, only one among many. This single object is unimportant and insignificant compared to others. In the objective world, the own name is not linked to any other thought at the beginning: it is just one name amony many others, and if we first think about it, there are not many experiences or impressions linked to it. I am nothing that matters.

From the inner point of view, I am very important and significant, I am everything that matters to me, and I have multiple attitudes, ideas, and thoughts. The inner world is characterized by a large variety and diversity of impressions and experiences. In the subjective world of inner thoughts, the thought of the own name is linked to every other thought: it represents the whole person, and the whole person includes every single thought. I am everything that matters.

The awareness of the own existence comes along with the awareness of the own non-existence by the pending end of life. The awareness of the own life comes along with the awareness of the own death. The own death is the worst thing that can happen to a biological organism. Once you start to recognize yourself, you begin to understand that one day you’ll be gone. “I’ll be dead” is an oddly exhilarating thought. Something unimaginable – eternal nothingness – awaits us all. How can everything turn into nothing? How can nothing turn into everything ?

Neural Correlate of a Supernova

Since the own self is linked to everything and nothing, it is impossible to find or locate the neural correlates of consciousness exactly when the object is the self, although consciousness itself is a correlate. Even for normal objects this correlate is difficult to find, since it is different and path dependent in each person and for every object. The only thing one could measure is the increase of activity during insights, and the decrease of activity during confusion. An insight in confusion must lead to a intricated and complex pattern. The patterns in the neural network of the brain during “That’s me” moments of self-awareness must be fascinating. It must be like a correlate of a supernova or a similar pattern which emerges from a collision of worlds.

A single object in the outside world – often linked to the spoken or written name – is recognized as the self. A basic contradiction follows: on the one hand the object is only represented by a few neurons. On the other hand the self means everything, every single of the 100 billion neurons. If n neurons span a phase space of dimension n, could it be that self-awareness is associated with a short-lived strange attractor of very high fractal dimension, let us say 1 billion? The emerging pattern must be like a short-lived lightning storm which takes place in a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. We know that the brain has 100 billion connected cells. Could it be that consciousness of the self is astonishing, because it is based on an astronomical number of cells which interact for a short time?

In his book “The Astonishing Hypothesis” the late Francis Crick argues that a person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of neurons. The “astonishing hypothesis” is ‘…that “You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’ Maybe consciousness is indeed astonishing, more astonishing than Crick thought perhaps.

A popular way of trying to solve the mystery of consciousness is the hunt for the “neural correlates of consciousness”. Yet the interesting moments where we are really conscious of ourselves are rare, and they are short. The hunt for neural correlates of consciousness is like the hunt for the physical correlates of a giant fireworks. It is quite impressive, everywhere and nowhere, but only for a short time. You have to look exactly at the right moment, and the impressive patterns change constantly.

The Emergence of Consciousness

In my old paper about Types and Forms of Emergence I try to describe the different types of emergence which exist. It is not directly about emergence of consciousness, which is perhaps the most complex form of emergence. And certainly the most interesting. What type of emergence is it? The traditional forms of emergence can be found if agents interact. Agents can for instance interact to form a group, a swarm, a flock, etc. Consciousness emerges if whole systems interact with each other, when universes meet and worlds collide, when different systems cooperate in a conflicting way. The connection is like a wormhole between different universes: on the one end the biological universe, where the body of the organism is located, and on the other end the cultural universe, where the personality, the character, and the name are located. The emergence of (artificial) consciousness can be explained by a collision of worlds or connection between different universes. The moment we make the connection or “tunnel” is the “magic” moment of self-awareness. The precise location of the connection is associated with the position of the connection, which marks our individual “slice of the world”, and it is the root of our subjective experience.

The Magic of Self-Awareness

The mystery of consciousness and the hard problem of subjective experience arise because there are countless different ways to experience the same thing – which depend on the former personal experiences with similar things. Each of us has a personal, path-dependent, unique character.

As we have tried to describe it above, the magic of self-awareness arises from the unification of contrasting opposites, from the combination of insight and confusion, awe and desparation, joy and despair. The best way to describe it is perhaps to use a bit of poetry. Take a look at the first lines in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, which consist of a wonderful list of antithesis. The whole first paragraph is made up entirely of contrasting pairs:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way
~Chapter 1, The Period, of a “Tale of Two Cities”, Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

The mystery of subjective experience and the magic of self-awareness are the reasons why consciousness is so mysterious. The corresponding processes “operate” in different timespans. Subjective experience is caused by a long time of learning and adapation, self-awareness during a short moment of insight. Both would not emerge from an isolated brain alone. Consciousness emerges because the brain is adaptive, and because it is able to relate events in the outside world to some internal processes. Steven Rose says in his book “From Brains to Consciousness” that the ambiguous relationship from brain and mind is probably science’s last frontier. Maybe we can find there the things described in this article. Some things in it have been a bit speculative and philosophical, but to explore new worlds and uncharted areas you need to have the courage to leave the territory of solid ground, at least for a short time. Andre Gide said “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”


– Steven Rose (Ed.), From Brains to Consciousness, Princeton Univ. Press, 1998
– Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis, Scribner, 1994
– Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness, Blackwell, 1990
– Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2003
– Gilbert Ryle, The Concept Of Mind, University Of Chicago Press, 1949
– Sidney Shoemaker, “Self-Reference and Self-Awareness.” Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968) 555-567

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