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Sentience, Self-Awareness and Self-Knowing

Self-awareness and sentience are difficult terms. Even scientists can’t agree on the difference between self-awareness and consciousness.  So what is the distinction between awareness of self, self-awareness and self-knowing?  

conscious awarenessUnlike people of Buddhist persuasion, I agree with the premise that conscious awareness is restricted to animals with complex brains. But I also agree with the view that “the more scientists study animal behavior and brain anatomy, the more universal consciousness seems to be.” How is that seeming contradiction resolved?

Awareness of self is what anthropologists refer to by the misnomer ‘self-awareness’—the cognitive ability to know that we know, “to realize that you are a thinking being.” This is a good definition of sentience, which the dictionary defines as “conscious of sense perceptions.”

Even the lowliest slug has sense perceptions, but the higher mammals, as well as other species such as birds, whales and the alien octopus, have extremely well developed senses, some we don’t have. But as far as we can tell, only humans are aware that they have sense perceptions; that is, only we are conscious that we are conscious.

In other words, all animals (and even plants) have sensory capabilities, but only the human animal is conscious of their existence in the world, and can step back and analyze or observe (also two very different capabilities) himself or herself.

Rather than get stuck in the tar pit of debating whether other animals are conscious or not, we can look at human development. Infants are clearly conscious, in the sense that they perceive and respond to people and things around them. But they don’t yet have awareness of self, attested by their inability to recognize themselves in a mirror.

It may seem obvious, but learning to recognize oneself in a mirror is not the same as developing a sense of a separate self. But that distinction represents the cutting edge, literally and philosophically, of the question of what it means to be a human being.

A sense of self is developed sometime after the first year of life. Is the concept and feeling of being a separate person innate or learned? Does awareness of self inevitably mean we necessarily develop a sense of separate self?   

All humans, and some other animals, are aware of self by virtue (and vice) of having a brain capable of so-called higher thought. Put a mirror before a chimpanzee and allow our closest relative to familiarize itself with it. Then remove the mirror and paint a big red dot on the forehead of the chimp while it sleeps…being careful not wake it!  (Ethologists anesthetize our primate cousins, though that’s the least they do to them.) Reintroduce the mirror, and the chimp will touch the dot quizzically and examine itself in the mirror.

Perform the same experiment with an orangutan, and it won’t recognize the change. They don’t retain an image of themselves, and so have no awareness of themselves as distinct individuals.

Upon the awareness of self rests ‘theory of mind,’ a phrase that sounds like it was made up by a philosopher. It’s the ability of humans, possessing a sense of self, to interpret other people’s mental and emotion states. The phrase carries a lot of baggage, assuming, as it does, that separate minds are a given.

It’s when we shift, developmentally and philosophically, from the ability to recognize ourselves in a mirror to the sense of separate self, confusion really sets in.conscious awareness 1

Indeed, the tragic paradox is that the core capability that allows us to be human—the cognitive ability to recognize our image in a mirror and become conscious of ourselves—became the greatest impediment to our growing into human beings, because relationship became based on image rather than direct perception.

And relationship based on images is not relationship at all. Can we look without images?

Most people don’t want to look at themselves in the mirror of relationship, relationship to nature and to others. It’s much easier to accept images and ideas than to question their validity and undertake the arduous journey of self-exploration and awakening.

Perhaps that’s why though everyone has a sense of self, few are self-aware. Being self-aware entails being continuously mindful of one’s own thoughts, feelings and behavior. That’s way too much work for most people, and in fact many people expend great energy escaping what they see and feel. That’s one reason why there are so many narcissistic people these days.

If few people are self-aware, even fewer are self-knowing, which flows from our capacity for self-questioning, insight and non-accumulative learning. 

Self-aware people try to learn from experience; self-knowing people unlearn from experiencing.

Indeed, without initiating the movement of negation through self-knowing and the art of undivided observation, grudges and grievances accumulate, often reaching toxic levels on older age.

Growing up involves seeing things as they are, not as we want to see them. It means facing what is without personal reaction.

Awakening means going beyond the reality of what is and experiencing the actuality of truth from moment to moment. That’s the journey of sentient beings.  

Martin LeFevre 


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