How consciousness differs from self-consciousness

Self-consciousness is what differentiates us from lower species. Here's how we developed it

woman in natureFor the first three and a half billion years of life on this planet, the biosphere consisted of a massive population of individual single-celled organisms, such as bacteria, yeast, algae, and protozoa.

About 700 million years ago, individual cells started to assemble into multi-cellular colonies. The collective awareness afforded in a community of cells was far greater than an individual cell's awareness. Since awareness is a primary factor in organismal survival, the communal experience offered its citizens a far greater opportunity to stay alive and reproduce.

From awareness to evolution

The first cellular communities, like the earliest human communities, were basic hunter-gatherer clans in which each member of the society offered the same services to support the survival of the community. However, as the population densities of both cellular and human communities reached greater numbers, it was no longer efficient or effective for all individuals to do the same job.

In both types of communities, evolution led to individuals taking on specialised functions. For example, in human communities, some members focussed upon hunting, others upon domestic chores or child rearing. In cellular communities, specialisation meant that some cells began to differentiate as digestive cells, others as heart cells, and still others as muscle cells.

The dawn of consciousness

Most of the trillions of cells forming bodies such as ours have no direct perception of the external environment. For instance, liver cells 'see' what's going on in the liver, but don't directly know what's going on in the world outside of the skin.

It is the function of the brain and the nervous system to interpret environmental stimuli and send out signals to the cells that integrate and regulate the life-sustaining functions of the body's organ systems.

The successful nature of multi-cellular communities allowed evolving brains to dedicate vast numbers of cells to cataloguing, memorising, and integrating complex perceptions. The ability to remember and select among the millions of experienced perceptions in life provides the brain with a powerful creative database from which it can create complex behavioural repertoires. When put into play, these behavioural programs endow the organism with the characteristic trait of consciousness—the state of being awake and aware of what is going on around.

Awareness about the 'I'

Many scientists prefer to think of consciousness in terms of a digital quality—an organism either has it or not. However, an assessment of the evolution of biological properties suggests consciousness, like any other quality, evolved over time. Consequently, the character of consciousness expresses itself as a gradient of awareness from its simpler roots in primitive organisms to the unique character of self-consciousness that is manifest in humans and other higher vertebrates.

The expression of self-consciousness is specifically associated with a small evolutionary adaptation in the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. This is the neurological platform that enables us to realise our personal identity and experience the quality of 'thinking'.

Monkeys and lower organisms do not express self-consciousness. When looking into a mirror, monkeys don't realise that they are looking at themselves; they perceive the image to be that of another monkey. In contrast, neurologically advanced chimps looking in the mirror perceive the mirror's reflection as an image of themselves.

How is self-consciousness different

Consciousness enables an organism to assess and respond to the immediate conditions of its environment that are relevant at that moment. In contrast, self-consciousness enables the individual to factor in the consequences of their actions in regard to how they impact the present moment and how they will influence the future.

Self-consciousness is an evolutionary adjunct to consciousness in that it provides another behaviour-creating platform: the role of a 'self' in the decision-making process. While conventional consciousness enables organisms to participate in the dynamics of life's 'play', self-consciousness offers it an opportunity to simultaneously be an observer in the 'audience'.

From this perspective, self-consciousness provides individuals with the option for self-reflection, reviewing and editing their character's performance. Collectively, conscious and self-conscious functions of the brain are referred to as the mind.

Excerpted with permission from Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future [And A Way To Get There From Here] by Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman

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