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Self-awareness is what makes us human
Because of our ability to think about thinking, "the gap between ape and man is immeasurably greater than the one between amoeba and ape."
- Self-awareness — namely, our capacity to think about our thoughts — is central to how we perceive the world.
- Without self-awareness, education, literature, and other human endeavors would not be possible.
- Striving toward greater self-awareness is the spiritual goal of many religions and philosophies.
The following is an excerpt from Dr. Stephen Fleming's forthcoming book Know Thyself. It is reprinted with permission from the author.
I now run a neuroscience lab dedicated to the study of self-awareness at University College London. My team is one of several working within the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, located in an elegant town house in Queen Square in London. The basement of our building houses large machines for brain imaging, and each group in the Centre uses this technology to study how different aspects of the mind and brain work: how we see, hear, remember, speak, make decisions, and so on. The students and postdocs in my lab focus on the brain's capacity for self-awareness. I find it a remarkable fact that something unique about our biology has allowed the human brain to turn its thoughts on itself.
Until quite recently, however, this all seemed like nonsense. As the nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte put it: "The thinking individual cannot cut himself in two — one of the parts reasoning, while the other is looking on. Since in this case the organ observed and the observing organ are identical, how could any observation be made?" In other words, how can the same brain turn its thoughts upon itself?
Comte's argument chimed with scientific thinking at the time. After the Enlightenment dawned on Europe, an increasingly popular view was that self-awareness was special and not something that could be studied using the tools of science. Western philosophers were instead using self-reflection as a philosophical tool, much as mathematicians use algebra in the pursuit of new mathematical truths. René Descartes relied on self-reflection in this way to reach his famous conclusion, "I think, therefore I am," noting along the way that "I know clearly that there is nothing that can be perceived by me more easily or more clearly than my own mind." Descartes proposed that a central soul was the seat of thought and reason, commanding our bodies to act on our behalf. The soul could not be split in two — it just was. Self-awareness was therefore mysterious and indefinable, and off-limits to science.
We now know that the premise of Comte's worry is false. The human brain is not a single, indivisible organ. Instead, the brain is made up of billions of small components — neurons — that each crackle with electrical activity and participate in a wiring diagram of mind-boggling complexity. Out of the interactions among these cells, our entire mental life — our thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams — flickers in and out of existence. But rather than being a meaningless tangle of connections with no discernible structure, this wiring diagram also has a broader architecture that divides the brain into distinct regions, each engaged in specialized computations. Just as a map of a city need not include individual houses to be useful, we can obtain a rough overview of how different areas of the human brain are working together at the scale of regions rather than individual brain cells. Some areas of the cortex are closer to the inputs (such as the eyes) and others are further up the processing chain. For instance, some regions are primarily involved in seeing (the visual cortex, at the back of the brain), others in processing sounds (the auditory cortex), while others are involved in storing and retrieving memories (such as the hippocampus).
In a reply to Comte in 1865, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill anticipated the idea that self-awareness might also depend on the interaction of processes operating within a single brain and was thus a legitimate target of scientific study. Now, thanks to the advent of powerful brain imaging technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we know that when we self-reflect, particular brain networks indeed crackle into life and that damage or disease to these same networks can lead to devastating impairments of self-awareness.
I often think that if we were not so thoroughly familiar with our own capacity for self-awareness, we would be gobsmacked that the brain is able to pull off this marvelous conjuring trick. Imagine for a moment that you are a scientist on a mission to study new life-forms found on a distant planet. Biologists back on Earth are clamoring to know what they're made of and what makes them tick. But no one suggests just asking them! And yet a Martian landing on Earth, after learning a bit of English or Spanish or French, could do just that. The Martians might be stunned to find that we can already tell them something about what it is like to remember, dream, laugh, cry, or feel elated or regretful — all by virtue of being self-aware.
I find it a remarkable fact that something unique about our biology has allowed the human brain to turn its thoughts on itself.
But self-awareness did not just evolve to allow us to tell each other (and potential Martian visitors) about our thoughts and feelings. Instead, being self-aware is central to how we experience the world. We not only perceive our surroundings; we can also reflect on the beauty of a sunset, wonder whether our vision is blurred, and ask whether our senses are being fooled by illusions or magic tricks. We not only make decisions about whether to take a new job or whom to marry; we can also reflect on whether we made a good or bad choice. We not only recall childhood memories; we can also question whether these memories might be mistaken.
Self-awareness also enables us to understand that other people have minds like ours. Being self-aware allows me to ask, "How does this seem to me?" and, equally importantly, "How will this seem to someone else?" Literary novels would become meaningless if we lost the ability to think about the minds of others and compare their experiences to our own. Without self-awareness, there would be no organized education. We would not know who needs to learn or whether we have the capacity to teach them. The writer Vladimir Nabokov elegantly captured this idea that self-awareness is a catalyst for human flourishing:
"Being aware of being aware of being. In other words, if I not only know that I am but also know that I know it, then I belong to the human species. All the rest follow s— the glory of thought, poetry, a vision of the universe. In that respect, the gap between ape and man is immeasurably greater than the one between amoeba and ape."
In light of these myriad benefits, it's not surprising that cultivating accurate self-awareness has long been considered a wise and noble goal. In Plato's dialogue Charmides, Socrates has just returned from fighting in the Peloponnesian War. On his way home, he asks a local boy, Charmides, if he has worked out the meaning of sophrosyne — the Greek word for temperance or moderation, and the essence of a life well lived. After a long debate, the boy's cousin Critias suggests that the key to sophrosyne is simple: self-awareness. Socrates sums up his argument: "Then the wise or temperate man, and he only, will know himself, and be able to examine what he knows or does not know…No other person will be able to do this."
Likewise, the ancient Greeks were urged to "know thyself" by a prominent inscription carved into the stone of the Temple of Delphi. For them, self-awareness was a work in progress and something to be striven toward. This view persisted into medieval religious traditions: for instance, the Italian priest and philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas suggested that while God knows Himself by default, we need to put in time and effort to know our own minds. Aquinas and his monks spent long hours engaged in silent contemplation. They believed that only by participating in concerted self-reflection could they ascend toward the image of God.
A similar notion of striving toward self-awareness is seen in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism. The spiritual goal of enlightenment is to dissolve the ego, allowing more transparent and direct knowledge of our minds acting in the here and now. The founder of Chinese Taoism, Lao Tzu, captured this idea that gaining self-awareness is one of the highest pursuits when he wrote, "To know that one does not know is best; Not to know but to believe that one knows is a disease."
Today, there is a plethora of websites, blogs, and self-help books that encourage us to "find ourselves" and become more self-aware. The sentiment is well meant. But while we are often urged to have better self-awareness, little attention is paid to how self-awareness actually works. I find this odd. It would be strange to encourage people to fix their cars without knowing how the engine worked, or to go to the gym without knowing which muscles to exercise. This book aims to fill this gap. I don't pretend to give pithy advice or quotes to put on a poster. Instead, I aim to provide a guide to the building blocks of self-awareness, drawing on the latest research from psychology, computer science, and neuroscience. By understanding how self-awareness works, I aim to put us in a position to answer the Athenian call to use it better.
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A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
The tomb that held the cheese lies in the desert sands south of Cairo. It was first discovered in the 19th century by treasure hunters, who eventually lost the knowledge of its location, leaving the Saharan sands to once again conceal the tomb.
“Since 1885 the tomb has been covered in sand and no-one knew about it,” Professor Ola el-Aguizy of Cairo University told the BBC. “It is important because this tomb was the lost tomb.”
In 2010, a team of archaeologists rediscovered the tomb, which belonged to Ptahmes, a mayor and military chief of staff of the Egyptian city of Memphis in the 13th century B.C. In the tomb, the team found a jar containing a “solidified whitish mass,” among other artifacts.
“The archaeologists suspected [the mass] was food, according to the conservation method and the position of the finding inside the tomb, but we discovered it was cheese after the first tests,” Enrico Greco, the lead author of the paper and a research assistant at Peking University in Beijing, told the The New York Times.
To find out what the substance was, the team had to develop a novel way to analyze the proteins and identify the peptide markers in the samples. They first dissolved parts of the substance and then used mass spectrometry and chromatography to analyze its proteins.
Despite more than 3,000 years spent in the desert, the researchers were able to identify hundreds of peptides (chains of amino acids) in the sample. They found some that were associated with milk from goat, sheep and, interestingly, the African buffalo, a species not usually kept as a domestic animal in modern Africa, as Gizmodo reports.
Those results suggested that the substance was cheese, specifically one that was probably similar in consistency to chevre but with a “really, really acidy” taste, as Dr. Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the chemistry and history of cheese, told the The New York Times.
“It would be high in moisture; it would be spreadable,” he said. “It would not last long; it would spoil very quickly.”
The researchers also found traces of the bacterium Brucella melitensis, which causes brucellosis, a debilitating disease that can cause endocarditis, arthritis, chronic fatigue, malaise, muscle pain and other conditions. It’s a disease usually contracted by consuming raw dairy products.
“The most common way to be infected [with Brucella melitensis] is by eating or drinking unpasteurized/raw dairy products. When sheep, goats, cows, or camels are infected, their milk becomes contaminated with the bacteria,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control wrote on its website. “If the milk from infected animals is not pasteurized, the infection will be transmitted to people who consume the milk and/or cheese products.”
Dr. Kindstedt said one reason the study is significant is for its novel use of proteomic analysis, which is the systematic identification and quantification of the complete complement of proteins (the proteome) of a biological system.
“As I say to my students every year when I get to Egypt, someone has to go ahead and analyze these residues with modern capabilities,” he told the The New York Times. “This is a logical next step and I think you’re going to see a lot more of this.”
'The Great Pyramid of Chee-za'. An artist's interpretation of a very ripe, slightly deadly Egyptian tomb cheese. (Credit: Creative commons/Big Think)
However, Dr. Kindstedt did offer a bit of caution on the conclusions the researchers drew from the findings.
“The authors of this new study did some nice work,” he told Gizmodo in a statement. “But in my view, on multiple grounds (I suspect in their zeal to be “the first”), they inferred considerably beyond what their data is capable of supporting within reasonable certainty, and almost certainly they are not the first to have found solid cheese residues in Egyptian tombs, just the first to apply proteomic analyses (which is worthy achievement on its own).”
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.