Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousnessby Julian Keenan, Dean Falk, Gordon G. Gallup
"How do we know who we are? When and how did we become aware of our presence and thoughts? Why do some species develop self-awareness, while others do not?" This question of self-awareness and consciousness has puzzled philosophers and scientists alike, from Aristotle and Darwin to Descartes and William James. In his famous "mirror test" thirty years ago, leading… See more details below
"How do we know who we are? When and how did we become aware of our presence and thoughts? Why do some species develop self-awareness, while others do not?" This question of self-awareness and consciousness has puzzled philosophers and scientists alike, from Aristotle and Darwin to Descartes and William James. In his famous "mirror test" thirty years ago, leading researcher Gordon G. Gallup Jr. showed that self-awareness begins with the recognition of one's reflection in the mirror, an ability that only higher order primates possess. In The Face in the Mirror, Julian Paul Keenan, Gordon G. Gallup Jr., and Dean Falk futher explore mirror recognition as the key to understanding the origins of consciousness and its role in our evolution, everyday behaviour, and ongoing survival.
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The Face in the MirrorThe Search for the Origins of Consciousness
By Julian Keenan
Harper Collins PublishersCopyright © 2003 Julian Keenan All right reserved. ISBN: 006001279X
The Face in the Mirror
At some point in our lives, we have all asked ourselves, "Who am I?" "How do I exist?" "Where in my brain do I exist?" It appears that our existence compels, and in fact demands, that we consider these questions. They have been, in fact, central to the study of philosophy and religion for centuries.
The Dilemma of the Self
Scientists, too, have been seeking answers to these concerns. In the 18th century, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus developed what was to become the basis for our classification of plants and animals, a scheme similar to the one still used in high school biology class today, with its divisions into kingdom, phylum, order, and so forth. Even 100 years before Darwin, Linnaeus grouped humans with "other" animals and categorized them as primates (from the Latin primas, "first") along with monkeys, apes, bats, lemurs, and lorises. But to distinguish humans from other species, he recalled an inscription above the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, "Nosce te ipsum" ("Know thyself"), implying that what separated humans from other primates was the capacity for self-knowledge and self-representation. Linnaeus believedself-inspection to be the first step on the road to becoming Homo sapiens ("wise man"), that reflecting on our own thoughts, or self-awareness, was the highest form of cognition and an ability unique to humans.
Seemingly, Linnaeus had picked up on the ideas of other great thinkers before him. The ancient Greek scholars were fascinated by the complex nature of the self, believing humans had been given the unique gift of being able to contemplate their own existence. Socrates (b. 470 B.C.E.), for example, stated that the un-examined life is not worth living. Introspection was not simply prescribed, it was necessary as the means to understand true consciousness and goodness. Plato (b. ca. 428 B.C.E.) took these ideas further by arguing that introspection was in fact a human obligation. Virtue and moral realization were attained through knowledge of "good" and knowledge of "self."
But, as my students might say, "Aristotle was the man." First, Aristotle (b. 384 B.C.E.) took a "comparative" approach to self-awareness. That is, he described in detail the differences between humans and animals in terms of cognitive abilities. He believed basic functions and perceptions (e.g., sight, touch, etc.) were common to humans and animals, but that intellect was reserved for humans alone. Aristotle was also one of the first philosophers to address the relationship between the self, the soul, and the body (imagine what he might attempt with access to today's modern neuroimaging equipment!).
Centuries later, the French mathematician René Descartes (b. 1596) became possibly the most influential thinker on human consciousness. Descartes was not only a great philosopher; he may be considered the first neuroscientist. His theories on the link between self-awareness and consciousness remain significant even today. "Cogito, ergo sum," or "I think, therefore I am," suggests that the self exists, and knows that it exists, because it can think, and reflect upon its own existence. It is interesting to note that this intuition can give rise to solipsism, a belief that the self is the only reality we can know. The core of this idea presented itself to me about 25 years ago when my 10-year-old sister asked me, "How do you know that all of the people in the world are not just robots, put on this planet only for your amusement? How do you know any person other than you actually exists?" While I am not sure that my sister knew she was spouting the philosophy of solipsism, she certainly made her point.
Not only did Descartes eloquently describe the self, he actually attempted to locate it in the brain. He believed the pineal gland (a small region centrally positioned in the lower brain) was the place where the mind and body met, and therefore the center of consciousness and self. His assertion was based on the fact that the pineal gland was not lateralized, that it has no left or right side, as is the case with many other parts of the brain. Though Descartes was later proven incorrect, this was pretty good neuro-science by the standards of the 17th century.
Descartes' comparative approach toward humans and animals also had a lasting impact on science. While he believed that animals were intelligent, he did not believe they possessed a soul or a self in the terms described above. Only humans were capable of contemplating their own existence, of considering themselves objectively. He supported this argument by noting that animals act on instinct, are not very adaptable, and do not use language. Finally, he stated that if we ascribe a self to one animal, then we must ascribe it to all, and it is clear that lower animals (e.g., oysters) do not possess a self.
While the ideas of the ancient philosophers with respect to consciousness and the self are quite important, Descartes's theories have proven to be critical. First, he defined the very nature of human existence as the existence of the self. Human consciousness is the self, the self is consciousness. Second, Descartes believed it was possible to localize consciousness in the brain. (In fact, he humbly believed that he had successfully done this himself.) And finally, Descartes described the highest forms of consciousness as existing only in humans.
In addition to the Greeks and Descartes, many other great philosophers, scientists, and writers have examined the human mind and concluded that the sense of self is the link to consciousness, perhaps the defining characteristic of human life. Freud made knowledge of the self the focus of his work, concluding that much of one's being was repressed, buried deep within the unknown mind ...
Excerpted from The Face in the Mirror by Julian Keenan
Copyright © 2003 by Julian Keenan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
A Harvard-trained neurologist, Julian Paul Keenan is currently an assistant professor in psychology and the director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at Montclair State University and a researcher at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University. He was previously on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. He lives with his wife, Ilene, in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Gordon G. Gallup Jr. is a senior professor of psychology at SUNY-Albany, who researches evolution and behavior among humans, primates, and other animals. His groundbreaking "mirror test" helped reconceptualize recent studies in self-awareness and consciousness.
Dean Falk is a senior anthropologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. Her work has focused especially on gender differences and the origins of language and music in the brain. She is well known for her "radiator hypothesis," which explains how humans keep their extra-large brains cool.
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