When do Humans Develop Consciousness?, Part 3: Self-Awareness February 22, 2009Posted by ews8704 in Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind.
My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Wilkens, had us hatch baby chicks in the classroom as part of our biology curriculum. This has to have been one of my favorite memories of Mullan Road Elementary School: for weeks we 8-year olds waited restlessly as the eggs sat huddled inside the classroom incubator, and every week Mrs. Wilkens would explain how the baby chickens inside were growing.
I remember they all started hatching at once, right before P.E class. Unfortunately, one of the chicks “didn’t make it,” as Mrs. Wilkens said (later one of the boys in my class told me it was born with its intestines hanging out, although I don’t know whether that’s true.) Despite our loss, we were delighted to have a handful of our very own cheerful chicks for pets.
They were busy, these chicks, and they seemed to make decisions as a collective. They would interrupt our lessons by a sudden chorus of chirps, only to all plop down asleep a couple minutes later, their plump little bodies all snuggled up together.
Unfortunately chicks, despite their cuteness, can have a vicious streak (much like 8-year-olds, for that matter) . All of the chicks were born with black feathers, except for one, who was instead a perfect butter yellow color, like the Easter biddies on Hallmark cards. Sadly, the other chicks taunted this yellow one relentlessly. Mrs. Wilkens, worried that his siblings would peck the yellow one to death, eventually moved him to his own separate terrarium.
The yellow chick, unfortunately, became quite lonely all by himself, and soon our long division lessons were interrupted by the deep, somber chirps of a chick forgotten. Mrs. Wilken’s tried giving him a friend, a tiny stuffed panda bear, but it was just not the same.
Unable to bear his yelping any longer, Mrs. Wilken’s finally tried giving the chick a little mirror. It worked. He loved it. He would peck at it and brush against it and have whole conversations with just his reflection. We kept the chicks for a couple of weeks more, until we had to return them to the farm, and I don’t think that little yellow chick ever did catch on.
By not being able to recognize himself in the mirror, the little yellow chick demonstrated a lack of self-concept. Many researchers even use a similar test, the mirror test, to determine whether a creature is indeed self-aware (Jha, 2006). During the mirror test, a subject is tested to see if he can recognize himself in a mirror. The researcher places an identifying mark, like a smudge of lipstick or sticker, on the subject’s face. If he reaches up to touch the marker, he has demonstrated self-awareness. Elephants, apes, and bottlenose dolphins have all passed the mirror test (Jha, 2006). Human children can usually pass when they are about two years old.
When I gave my presentation on consciousness to the class, I emphasized feeling, thinking, and interacting as key components of consciousness, admitting that, “theorists disagree on whether and to what extent we can infer unobservable thoughts from observed behavior (Newcombe).” I then discussed what children can do at different developmental stages, including when they are in the womb.
( There’s a really interesting article on that at the following address: http://health.discovery.com/centers/pregnancy/americanbaby/senses.html )
But that’s not the whole story, is it? There’s that other aspect of human consciousness – self-concept – that develops afterward. It is one thing for a child to, for example, laugh because she is happy, but it is another thing to understand that she laughed because she herself finds potty humor quite funny.
Ferrari & Sternberg, authors of Self Awareness: Its Nature and Development, winnow self-awareness down to the following four traits:
o One witnesses potential evidence about oneself.
o One has inner awareness of this witnessing.
o One has occurrent awareness in thought of one or more features of one’s character or personality.
o One brings self-witnessed evidence to bear in judging of this feature or these features (p. 29).
I remember hearing that a distant cousin of mine, when he was around one years old, once picked up the hot end of an electric hair curler, and even though he was sobbing and obviously in pain, he wouldn’t drop it. He was just too young to understand that the pain would stop if he did.
So he was conscious, in the sense that he actively picked up an object, felt burning and reacted by crying. But how could he not understand to drop the curler? I suppose he might not have understood, logistically, the cause and effect process set before him. (Effect= pain, Cause = hot object). But perhaps he couldn’t see himself as separate from his surroundings, didn’t understand the pain wasn’t just happening, it was happening to him.
I imagine that “awareness of thought of personality features” occurs later, after a child learns that she is separate from the world around her. I know that babies, like the ones around 5 months old, can have clear preferences for specific toys or foods. But I wonder when we see those preferences as part of our identity (“Hi, my name is Teagan, and my favorite food is chicken nuggets.”) From my experience caring for kids, I think this happens between the ages of 2 and 3. But this, of course, is completely speculatory on my part. Self-concept is just so difficult to explain and test for.
I’ll end on an anecdotal note: I worked in the two-year-old room at a day care last year, and one day the kids were given an art project of sticking big, bright circle stickers onto pieces of paper. One girl decided to stick them on her clothes and face instead, until she was polka-dotted from head to toe. The instructor told her to go look in the mirror and see herself, and she dutifully ran/toddled over. Seeing her reflection, she immediately burst out laughing.
Newcombe, Nora. (1996). Child Development: Change over Time, Eighth Edition. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers.
Ferrari, M. & Sternberg, R. (1998). Self-Awareness: Its Nature and Development. New York: Guilford Press.
Jha, A. (2006). Elephants Pass Mirror Test of Self-Awareness. Guardian Magazine. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2006/oct/31/uknews