Becoming aware of the self

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There must be an explanation for what separates humans from other animals. Trying to figure out why we have such a superior advantage in evolution would be difficult without one. Self awareness may be this advantage.

Self awareness is the ability to acknowledge and understand that we, ourselves, exist. In the video posted by BBC, The Secret You, there is the question of when do we as humans become self aware? Using an experiment known as the mirror experiment, they were able to find a good time frame for when children start developing this sense of self.


The researchers first expose the child to a mirror so they may observe their reflection. After a short period of time, the parent then places a sticker on the child's face secretly. When the child is put back in front of the mirror, there will be one of two reactions. The child may not realize that the reflection is their's, therefore not know about the sticker on their face. However, if the child brings their hand up to inspect the sticker based on their reflection alone, they have a sense of self awareness. Using this mirror experiment, researchers have found that most children develop this sense of self between 18 to 24 months. But what does this mean?

It is theorized that a sense of self awareness comes with benefits greater than knowing the self exists. Once someone realizes they exist as a separate and unique entity, they must also realize that this entity has a timeline. It exists, has existed, and will exist for a period of time. This leads to the development of a kind of "fourth dimension" that self aware creatures can live on. An animal species such as a wolf may only exist in three dimensions striving to survive in the present. With an awareness of time one could realize that by working harder today they may benefit themselves tomorrow. By benefiting someone else today they might create an ally for the future. With this awareness of time comes bundled with things like culture, a sense of family, and property. This could very be the cause of what separated humans from all other species.


The idea that time awareness is what caused human success is still theoretical without the ability to prove or disprove. However it can be seen that self awareness comes with positive effects nonetheless. In the video it was said that most babies develop a sense of self between 18 to 24 months. In developmental stages of babies, the most complex cognitive changes will take place in this same era along with, of course, the awareness of events that took place in the past. Is it coincidence? I think not.

Below is a link to an article on a few cognitive changes that happen for children between a year to two years of age.


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This was a very interesting entry. I remember reading about when babies become self aware, and now my only question is when do animals become self aware? You mentioned that an animal may only exist in three dimensions compared to four. Does this mean an animal will not recognize itself if you bring it to a mirror?

Although you probably weren't expecting an answer and probably won't see this, I'll shoot anyways.

By an animal only existing in three instead of four, I meant they lack the ability to perceive time. A better way to explain it would be although they have an awareness of day and night, and possibly (at best) the seasons, they have no way of differentiating between different generations, different time periods, holidays, and cultural significance. They lack the concept of "self", which means they don't understand the concept of existence. In turn, this leads to a lack of comprehension of a "timeline" that they function on.

This is such a great post, thanks Jay.

It does seem like most animals lack the ability to truly plan and perceive time. A lot of scientists have tried to successfully complete the sentence "Humans are the only animals that can ______" without someone else being able to think of an exception to the rule, but one of my favorites I've heard is, "humans are the only animals that can plan for the future" ...some people might wager on potential exceptions to this (such as cetaceans, elephants, and some primates), but we have yet to prove otherwise.

In any case, I think it's safe to argue that "self-recognition" (as with a mirror) and "self-awareness" can definitely be two separate phenomena.

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This page contains a single entry by J published on February 20, 2012 5:06 PM.

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