Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Terror of Self-Awareness...

A couple of years ago, I had a concept of a book in my head, which I never got down to writing because it was just such a difficult and heavy subject. I started wondering about it around 2009 -- the year of observation. There was something quite special about 2009... But, I won't bother getting into all the details of that right now. It must have been a normal hard-working day when I began to wonder, how does one identify him or herself? Started thinking about the time in ones life when s/he realises that s/he exists -- when does that moment occur? Clearly, since all the enlightened beings talk about "I" being the source of ego, I started wondering when does one really start feeling that "I" exist.

I started tracing back to my childhood and recalled that although I had a close bond with my sister for most of my childhood, I did start as a selfish child. It was instinct, until my mother told me to 'share'. I consider selfishness as that first step where you become aware of yourself. And the second step of 'sharing' seems to be when you become aware of another person's consciousness. It is one thing to see another person as a physical brute reaching out to have a piece of my chocolate, because "it's MY chocolate, keep your filthy hands away!" But, it is perhaps when you see that the other person is also a person, seems to feel just like you feel, seems to have a level of self-awareness too. I assume that's when you can truly 'share' something with someone in particular, when you see them as you'd see yourself. Kind of like putting yourself in their shoes sort of a thing.

Anyway, as 2009 was also the year of serious PhD research, I searched google scholar to see if there was any research done on when does 'self-awareness' really occur. I found a paper titled five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life. In this paper, the author does a few experiments to identify at what age a child and other animals seem to become self-aware, and what level they seem to reach. The experiment was quite simple, he placed the subject (a child, dog, ape, etc.) in front of a mirror and put a red dot on the subject's head. The main objective was to observe whether the subject does not respond at all (in which case it does not identify its reflection as its own), reaches to the reflection in the mirror (in which case it identifies the reflection in the mirror as another subject), or touches its own head to pull out the red dot (in which case the subject understands that the person in the mirror is me). Needless to say, it was only the apes and children of a certain age that had a high level of self-awareness.

Going through this paper, I found another study called the tribal terror of self-awareness, which was just amazing! The author of this study, which was conducted somewhere in the early 80s I think, had the rare opportunity to visit a village in remote New Guinea where there lived a group of villagers that had never seen a mirror. The water in the village was fairly murky, so there was nothing with which these villagers 'self-reflected'. The researcher, Edmund Carpenter, created three groups of people, the first were introduced to mirrors, the second to photographs of themselves and the third to video footage of themselves. The researcher noted almost a sense of 'shock' when the subject saw him/herself in the mirror/photos/video, with the impulse reaction usually being to duck and cover one's head and mouth (as if not to lose more of oneself into this black magic device?). Over the period, the researcher also commented that he noticed that villagers had started grooming themselves as they now saw their own appearance.

Edmund Carpenter's work got me thinking about writing a story (which was the book I originally started this post with). I wanted to write about how the first human really came into being. It was fine to be monkeys jumping from tree to tree and doing whatever a monkey can and should do, I suppose. But, who was that first ape-man (or woman) that must have gained this sense of self-awareness? Nothing could possibly 'belong' to anyone until they really took that first step to self-awareness. No 'my wife/husband', 'my child', 'my belief', 'my stick with chiseled rock at the end of it', 'my dance around the bonfire', 'my mammoth'?? Well, I guess, there would always have been a sense of 'my mammoth'... No ape-man could ever let go of his juicy mammoth ribs regardless of if he was aware of himself or not. I want my baby-back baby-back baby-back ribs... barbecue sauce!

Self-awareness is a strange thing... It seems to be the root of a lot of the problems we have. It is the reason we protect what we believe is ours, the reason we fear dying, the reason we compete, the reason why Obama is worried about what Kim Jong Un is hiding, the reason why LeBron James is worried about what Greg Papovich is thinking about on the side-lines, the reason why Denny Crane would never lose a case... (Denny Crane!)... But, even after all the trouble it could possibly cause, each unique snowflake of a human being would have nothing unique to offer if it weren't for this basic sense of self-awareness. This basic sense of self-awareness is what seems to make everyone feel so darn special about how they operate. The only technicolour mind in a black and white world...

No comments: