Have you ever thought how incredible, how utterly improbable, it is that you are alive and consciously aware? If you think about it, it is a mysterious experience to find yourself a cognizant living entity, existing of all things! The magic of perception, memory and feelings is far more incredulous than science fiction. As we marvel at the photographs of Mars and Saturn reflected back from our space probes millions of miles away from earth, our amazement is tinged with disappointment that there seems to be nothing yet like us. The universe looks more and more like a wasteland of beautiful debris. The wonder of complex life in our solar system seems to for now live here. And here we are, each person taking a singular view of ourselves and the world around us.
Not all life knows that it is a living, separate being with conscious intention. This amazing ability evolved slowly and for purposes of survival. It entails a plethora of brain circuits, some of which interface and converge into a small area on each side of the brain called the insula. It is here that information is consolidated from internal organs and external experience from which self awareness emerges.
In addition to the insula, many other intricate brain circuits are related to consciousness. Now we know that animals with complex brains have many circuits which are cells linked from various parts of the brain that become active at the same time depending on the action or thought. For instance thinking of a dog would activate certain pathways. Thinking of a cat may activate the same circuits (those related to furry animals) plus other ones more specific to a cat. Certain areas related to a dog - for example, associations related to barking-would not be activated. .
It seems that the right brain primarily receives information while the left brain elaborates and analyzes that material, attempting to find patterns of association in memory and searching to make sense of incoming stimuli both from internal and external sources. The left brain may actually interpret information from the centers of self awareness, bringing it together so that we have a unified but many faceted experience of ourselves. Interestingly, it is only around age 2 that a mental sense of "me" emerges.
The development of the sprouting childhood self consciousness is negatively impacted by a life context of chronic distress. The arousal of an emotional state, such as fear for example, brings the brain's intellectual resources to focus on that state. During heightened arousal attention is constricted. This is done at the exclusion of other emotional states. During childhood, when the brain and the self structure are dynamically developing, it is optimal to have a wide range of emotions. Hopefully positive emotion, which is most conducive to learning, will reign. When a child grows up with a predominantly negative emotional ambience the elaboration of self experience is curtailed. Fearful or chronically upset circumstances demand energy and attention so that exploration, learning and creativity are set aside.
There exist specialized pathways in our brains that relate to our emotional and social relationships with self and others. Brain imaging can now detect areas that seem to activate with self reflection. We are told that at least some other mammals share an awareness of self, but only man and the great apes seem to have certain "spindle cells" which are hair-like projections. These cells seem to distribute socially germane signals. Many animals may have a sense of self, but one that likely is less elaborate and delineated than humans. The African great apes appear to have more of these self-related brain structures. A chimpanzee can recognize himself in a mirror. Self recognition is thought to be a phylogenetic continuum of sorts.
It is adaptive to be able to "read" our own internal state and to direct our attention to the outer world so that we may act on it constructively. Furthermore, it is helpful to be able to perceive the intentions of others around us. It is thought that empathy evolved after self reflection and entailed the ability to project our own conscious experience to others. Empathy thus permits us to be better able to anticipate the actions of another. This ability to interpret and care about the state of affairs of others is helpful for collaboration, mutual well being and protecting us from threat.
Civilization has evolved because we can address our needs better collectively as long as we are predominantly collaborative. When people around us are peaceful and content, we tend to experience that also. Some experiences energize and lead us to approach while others lead to avoidance, competition or quiescence. We are made so that we will in general move towards things that are good for us and away from those that are not.
Memory interfaces in the self awareness system. With memory comes the ability to compare past and present and opens the possibility of minding the future. Memory and emotion increase the efficiency of reason. Consciousness renders a self awareness enriched by the memory of our own individual experience. Psychiatric drugs impact on the same neurochemical pathways that are involved in memory and learning. It is thought that these drugs may prime the brain towards learning receptivity so that therapeutic changes can be learned and implemented into new life patterns-overriding old predispositions, either learned or inherited or a bit of both.
The reasons behind the evolution of conscious awareness make good sense. The survival benefits involve the interface between our internal and external well being. If you are conscious that you are a discrete entity you can pull from relevant memory to adapt to the present and plan for a successful destiny. We are very much affected pleasurably or painfully by the image of occurrences in our past, and even in our anticipated future. Feelings are the result of physical and biochemical changes that are related to life regulation. Feelings mark experiences in memory as significant or not. Memories are then etched in our brain in synchrony with the level of feeling arousal at the time an experience occurs. When memories are retrieved the feelings usually surround the recollection. Remember, the more agitated we are the more deeply embedded the memory. It is then likely to be easily triggered and aligned with all the feelings associated with the original episode.
Our genes could be thought of as a code of generational memory. Their expression is very much influenced by our life experience and environment. Learning gives us the potential to transcend our genes. For example, if you are a tense personality and know it, you can carefully set up sustained life patterns that modify that tendency. The sense of self is composed of both unconscious genetic memory, for instance personality, and conscious experiential memories. Memories are represented in our brain neurons in patterns of association and connection. It is quite astonishing to think that our ephemeral sense of personhood is actually represented at a neurological level and in truth originates there. The self is a many faceted thing somehow made cohesive in our brain systems.
This delicate balance of self can be disrupted. Addiction compromises the self structure. When the feeling of well being is chronically at variance with what the body is reading and signaling to the brain, decision making fails. A dysregulation of self ensues. Foolishly spent addictive behaviors lead to depletion and vulnerability in our reward systems. Our brain's capacity for pleasure may be limited. The memory traces of addiction, once laid down, can easily be resurrected even after years of abstinence throwing the sense of self into disharmony once again.
Sometimes culture promotes short term rewards or manipulates the self structure of people for the greed of a few. Tobacco companies, for instance, promulgated smoking in the 30's, 40's and 50's so as to increase business revenues. Smoking became a habit for the majority of adults in many countries, especially for men. Clearly, long term harm was done to body systems, especially the pulmonary systems. Smoking causes a drug effect rendering a sensation of well being while in fact resulting in physical distress. This is a great example of a substance signaling the brain positively but not at all reflecting the situation in reality. Is it rather like political spin?
An important related concept is called allostases. It means the ability to achieve stability through change. One must continually vary all of the parameters of internal mechanisms to match them appropriately to environmental demands. The neurotransmitter system and indeed the rest of the body are in delicate balance and must be maintained with interaction in our world. It is an intricate system of life and survival that one must learn to treat with precious regard. Unfortunately all too often our society tends to promote doing "what feels good" without reference to thought of our good self interest-which usually involves the good of others also.
How do we enhance the quality of our flickering moments of self aware living? By understanding more about the physical mechanisms of conscious awareness, we have the possibility to set up patterns of living that promote a happy state of life affairs. These healthy, positive habits would be reflected in our organ systems and physical and social environment, leading to feeling sensations of satisfaction and quiescence. Brain imaging tells us that an animal feeling "happy" has increased ideation leading to more exploration, cogitation and creativity. When sadness reigns there is a visible deactivation of the frontal cortex. Happiness means we think better. It means we are satiated, safe and feel secure for the future. Indeed, feeling states bear witness to the state of well being for our many life systems, as long as they are not manipulated by drugs or alcohol. Someone has said that happiness is freedom from the tyranny of negative emotions-which we now know reflect both internal and external disharmony.
We have access to a wealth of information today about our selves. Fortunately, the more we understand, the greater the possibility to choose a life style that is routinely mindful of our self needs. Of course it sounds rather simple, but perhaps it really has never been easy. Self awareness is our good fortune. We can imagine, dream and will ourselves into our greatest potential-finding our best selves.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist