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.
Studies reveal the impact of strategic thinking on studying and other areas of life.
Metacognition, thinking about how you think, has been shown to help students improve their grades. Stanford University researchers published a new study that outlines a 15-minute thinking hack that led to an average improvement of one third of a letter grade for the participants.
The research stems from the insight that while many resources are provided by educational institutions, students don’t always know how to use them effectively. Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral research fellow who led the study, hypothesized that if students were made more self-reflective about how they approach their studies and the available resources, they could do better.
“Blind effort alone, without directing that effort in an effective manner, doesn’t always get you to where you want to go,” said Chen.
The team conducted two experiments using a “Strategic Resource Use” intervention they designed, which combines educational and social psychological theories.
For the experiments, the control group, which consisted of half the class, received just a regular reminder of a statistics exam coming up in a week. The intervention group also got a 15-minute online survey that made students think about what they expected will be on the exam, what grade they might get, what resources would be best used for preparation and how they would use them. In particular, they were asked to choose from 15 available class resources like practice questions, readings from the textbook, lecture notes or peer discussions.
Students in the first study got an average of 3.45% higher in points than their classmates in the control group. For the second study, that average difference was 4.65 percentage points.
The researchers found that strategic thinking had additional psychological benefits, helping students feel more empowered about their education. Students in the intervention group were also less stressed out about the upcoming exams.
Chen sees the strategy of metacognition to be useful in other parts of life, not just in education. You can use it to achieve goals like losing weight, learning any new skill or in parenting.
“Actively self-reflecting on the approaches that you are taking fosters a strategic stance that is really important in life,” she said. “Strategic thinking distinguishes between people of comparable ability and effort. This can make the difference between people who achieve and people who have the potential to achieve, but don’t.”
You can read her study in the journal “Psychological Science”.
Other studies have also highlighted the positive effects of utilizing metacognition. A study from the University of Newcastle in Australia looked at over 2,000 PhD students and found a relationship between how they thought about the learning process to their successes and failures in achieving their degrees. The British Educational Endowment Foundation discovered that students who received interventions that made them think about their writing skills showed 9 to 18 months worth of academic improvement.
Just imagining movement fires the same neurons as if we were actually moving. A new study shows we can wake our sleeping mind to practice motor skills in our dreams.
Mental training is arguably as important as physical fitness. That argument is gaining strength as a growing body of literature unravels the once-mysterious connections between consciousness and movement. We know that the murky domain of subconscious and autonomic actions greatly influences our waking lives. Now we’re learning how to train our unconscious selves for the benefit of our daily actions.
Neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás attributes this skill to the art of prediction. Before consciousness arose in multicellular creatures, primitive life developed a nervous system to navigate through its environment—a biological property he terms ‘motricity.’ By predicting where it has to move the organism ensures its survival.
Interestingly, Llinás noticed that thinking fires motor neurons, the pathway we use to move our bodies. He believes thinking is an internalized form of movement; what we call consciousness is a mental representation of this phenomenon. Our mental maps allow us to predict how to navigate our environment. Combined with memory, our inner GPS creates and constantly updates this road map of prediction: move here, don’t go there, act this way but not like that.
Athletes have understood this for some time: visually picture yourself performing your sport and you strengthen the motor connections between brain and body. Indeed, just picturing movement fires the same neurons as if you were doing it. Motricity meets metacognition.
This we’ve known for some time. But what about training while asleep? We know proper rest leads to better performance. Plenty of evidence proves the all-night cram to be a myth. A better time to retain information is after cardiovascular exercise. This makes sense. We’re designed for movement. Hunched over books all night without sleep is not an optimal training program. Eight hours of shuteye followed by a quick 5k is.
What’s happening during those eight hours, though? More to the point, can we use that time for training as well?
Turns out we can. Dr. Tadas Stumbrys decided to investigate whether sleep training had any positive correlation with physical performance. The vehicle he used was lucid dreaming, a unique mental state in which consciousness and the unconscious seemingly merge. While some people naturally acquire this skill, there are training methods to help you learn to take control of your dreams, affording you a Matrix-style cinema screen inside your head every night.
Stumbyrs and team had four groups—“frequent lucid dreamers (25%), a mental practice group (23%), a physical practice group (24%) and a control (no practice) group (24%)”—engage in a sequential finger tapping exercise. Alarms rung in the night to signify the commencement of their assigned practice. They were measured the following day for improvements.
In the end all three practice groups improved their physical skill. Interestingly, the lucid dreaming group improved more than the physical practice group by 3 percent and the mental rehearsal group by 8 percent.
The neural mechanisms responsible for physical movement are similar between the three states of consciousness studied: waking, lucid dreaming, and daydreaming:
A recent brain imaging study showed that brain activity in the sensorimotor cortex that is responsible for controlling our physical movements is similar during imagined and lucidly dreamed movement, thereby allowing motor learning to occur.
In his book, Waking, Dreaming, Being, philosophy professor Evan Thompson investigates consciousness through the lens of lucid dreaming, a topic he’s studied for decades. Dreaming isn’t random, he writes, but a “spontaneous mental simulation” that helps us imagine ourselves in the world. While awake we envision a reality we’d like to create and then pursue its manifestation—metacognition and motricity. This is also possible when you know you’re dreaming.
Borrowing from Buddhist philosophy, Thompson writes that the key is to understand “witnessing awareness,” which is essentially what we do while conscious and unconscious. This is the process of the little me inside my head picturing the physical me in the ‘real’ world. Just don’t confuse this for dualism. This is all one me.
One way to strengthen this inner dialogue of thought and action, of perception, prediction, and movement, is meditation. This discipline of self-awareness helps cultivate an ability to step back from daily patterns and envision yourself as part of the larger world, which changes your relationship to your actions. The same holds true while lucid dreaming.
Once you’re able to sustain the lucid dream state, he writes, you can transform it:
Use your imagination to manipulate the dream. Be playful. Change things and transform them…Explore the plasticity of the dream. In this way, the mind’s supple nature will manifest, and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the dreamscape as a mental construct, a product of imagination.
As the study shows, the imagination is the thoroughfare for the manifestation of ideas into reality while asleep and awake. Envisioning the goal is the first step in physically acting on it. All life is movement, from the neuronal firings of an idea to our bodies moving through space to accomplish it. Lucid dreaming turns out to be yet another field in which to sharpen our skills, another step in this complex and fascinating journey of self-understanding and self-mastery.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.