The science of self-awareness



What is self-awareness? And how does it help us?

Scientists disagree on their definitions of consciousness and self-awareness, but they agree that “to be conscious is to think; to be self-aware is to realise that you are a thinking being and to think about your thoughts.”¹

Newborn babies are conscious, they have thoughts and feelings, even if they do not yet have language. They feel hungry, they desire to be fed and we all know how upset they get if food doesn’t come quickly!

“In their first years of life, children develop a sense of self, learning to recognise themselves in the mirror and to distinguish between their own point of view and the perspectives of other people,” says Ferris Jabr of Scientific American.

Awareness is the gate of reason

So what does it mean to be self-aware? And can we enhance our own self-awareness?

Psychiatrists from the University of Washington² have drawn on Freud and Schiller’s model of the gates of consciousness to define different levels of self-awareness in the mind.

In the first stage of self-awareness, we think, but we cannot conceive that another is entitled to think differently. One might use phrases like,”I’m right, you’re wrong.”

In between stages one and two is what Freud and Schiller called “the gate of reason”. Here, one is able to accept the reality of both sides of the story. This is a fundamental turning point for awareness and our own well-being.

At the second stage of self-awareness, one respects different opinions on the same matter. Thoughts are metacognitive, mindful and meditative. One takes a parental and conditional view, using phrases like, “We should all be kind.”

The third stage goes even further. Here, one’s thoughts are engaged in contemplation and self-fulfillment. Conflicts are illuminated by the ability to recognise and transform one’s own impulses.

According to Freud and Schiller, this can progress all the way to a state of constant awareness and unconditional understanding. One is accepting of everything, using phrases like, “Life is like that.” One has no conflicts and is increasing humble, serene, wise, virtuous and well.

This seems to be the behaviour we see in great human beings like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, but does scientific research hold this theory to be true?

In a 2003 study, four Buddhist adepts in a meditative state of “open awareness” had less activation in their orbital frontal cortex when hearing a baby cry than those without meditation training.

This part of the brain is associated with making judgements such as pleasant or unpleasant. Decreased activity here suggests that the meditators were able to let go of any negative impulses.

The University of Washington’s scale suggests that as a person becomes more self-aware, they become more mindful, and are able to let go of struggles and feel more compassionately about others.

The same four meditators in this study showed greater activation in their left superior pre-frontal cortex than others, when listening to emotionally-charged sounds. This area of the brain is thought to be responsible for empathy and forgiveness. The meditators were able to hear these sounds, recognise their reactions, and let them go.

Imagine how much less irritable we might be, if we could allow those annoying sounds like barking, construction work and crying to simply come and go, without judgement and with great empathy?

Science seems to say that self-awareness is linked to compassion, empathy, forgiveness and the ability to regulate our own impulses. These qualities can bring a greater sense of well-being and peace to oneself, as well as being extremely beneficial for others.

Practising mindfulness is one way we can cultivate self-awareness.

¹ Self Awareness With A Simple Brain, Scientific American 2012

² Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being, published by Washington University School of Medicine

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