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When do Humans Develop Consciousness?, Part 3: Self-Awareness February 22, 2009

Posted by ews8704 in Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind.

baby chicks Self -Awareness

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.

If you click on the baby, you'll get to an interesting blog post on babies and the mirror test.

If you click on the baby, you'll get to an interesting blog post on babies and the mirror test.

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.

Works Cited:

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



1. Chris - February 23, 2009

First off sorry to spam your presentation with my 1/2 assed understanding of psychology.

Here is something I found interesting.
Just as Maslow believed in a hierarchy of needs, many prominent psychologists suggest there is a hierarchy of human development.

It breaks down into 8 stages over our lifetime (from birth to death)
The interesting part to note is – though we develop conscience form a young age, our ideas of right and wrong are constantly changing.
Many people (not the majority, but still enough to note), never make it past stage 4-6 in their development. This limits their conscience, their outlook on life and the world around them.

These are the 8 stages.

1) Infancy
(birth to 18 months)
Trust vs. Mistrust
Children develop a sense of trust when caregivers provide reliability, care, and affection. A lack of this will lead to mistrust.

2) Early Childhood
(2 to 3 years)
Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Toilet Training
Children need to develop a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence. Success leads to feelings of autonomy, failure results in feelings of shame and doubt.

3) Preschool
(3 to 5 years)
Initiative vs. Guilt Exploration
Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment. Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose. Children who try to exert too much power experience disapproval, resulting in a sense of guilt.

4) School Age
(6 to 11 years)
Industry vs. Inferiority School
Children need to cope with new social and academic demands. Success leads to a sense of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority.

5) Adolescence
(12 to 18 years)
Identity vs. Role Confusion Social Relationships
Teens needs to develop a sense of self and personal identity. Success leads to an ability to stay true to yourself, while failure leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self.

6) Young Adulthood
(19 to 40 years)
Intimacy vs. Isolation Relationships
Young adults need to form intimate, loving relationships with other people. Success leads to strong relationships, while failure results in loneliness and isolation.

7) Middle Adulthood
(40 to 65 years)
Generativity vs. Stagnation Work and Parenthood
Adults need to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by having children or creating a positive change that benefits other people. Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world.

8) Maturity
(65 to death)
Ego Integrity vs. Despair Reflection on Life
Older adults need to look back on life and feel a sense of fulfillment. Success at this stage leads to feelings of wisdom, while failure results in regret, bitterness, and despair.

These stages were developed by, Erik Erikson.

2. Elena - February 27, 2009

Cool! I think there really is some truth to that.

3. Mahna Mahna - May 3, 2012

Early life in humans in many ways is like life in dogs or cats. We claim that dogs and cats aren’t self-aware and if that is true, then an infant (up to around 4 years of age, right around the time memory starts to develop) is also not self-aware because they respond and learn from stimuli. A dog won’t poo on the carpet if you provide negative stimuli and will poo outside if you provide positive stimuli. Telling a baby ‘NO!’ when he picks up something he shouldn’t makes him drop it and scares him which prevents him from doing it again. Neither dog nor baby realizes why it is bad to do what he did, but they know not to do it. I personally don’t believe dogs and cats have no consciousness because it takes a kind of advanced understanding of emotions for a cat to come comfort you when you cry, or to be as creative as possible with her calls when she wants something or appreciates the things you do for her, or to leave you half of their prey because they respect you and want you to be happy. The fact that she becomes anxious, depressed and lonely when you leave the house and waits for you patiently at the door meowing as you unlock to come in shows that she has emotions for you. The fact that she is excited to see you wake up, that she meows and talks back, rubs up against your legs, leads you to the living room, tries to reach for you and keeps talking shows that, like humans, she needs interaction. Her bowl will be full of food and she will still be the sweetest she can be. And she sleeps with you, not because she’s cold, but because she wants to be with you. When she gets overheated she moves a little farther to get air, lies down turning towards you with her face close to yours and her paws stretched to reach your neck, or hand, or arm because she needs physical contact. And yet we consider animals to be a accumulation of instincts and nothing more when a baby only cares about eating, being protected and being catered to. The baby focuses on itself, its survival and being comfortable. When I was a baby I know for sure that I, as a person, didn’t exist. I have clear memories from when I was 4 years old and I did have a sense of self, but it was very primitive. The stages of moral development of Descartes (and the countless facsimiles that followed) don’t really take into consideration consciousness. Eventually, once moral development passes the stage where instincts control actions, decisions and most thought, then a person begins to develop a sense of self. People believe that a human infant is sacred and innocent — that means nothing. Infants are powerless and incapable thus they cannot cause the same kind of damage an older human can, but they still have the same instinct of greed all humans possess (a baby will take another baby’s pacifier, or bite another baby etc…). A human can only become innocent and benevolent if raised properly to respect life and learn to be empathetic. So in summation, a baby is a shell, potential, something that one day will be a human being. It’s like a cocoon that will one day flourish into a butterfly, but until then, it is just a shell.

4. Gordon - February 15, 2014

This is my experience at two years of age, when I first attained consciousness. My mother had awakened me from bed. I was awake, but suddenly awoke even more. “Awaking even more” is how I thought of this new consciousness. I already had knowledge and thinking ability. For example, I was amazed that it was night time, as shown by darkness seen out a bathroom window, while my mother was giving me a bath. I realized that I had done something backwards: slept through much of the day and awoke at night. I realized that this new consciousness experience was very important and that, just as it flickered on, it may flicker off, and later come on stronger and more often. I resolved to think about this first consciousness experience every once in a while to ensure never forgetting it. It only lasted a moment. Of course, in the following months, my consciousness did increase in frequency and intensity, until I became conscious every awake hour. However, I am unconscious during sleep and my consciousness increases during the first seconds after waking up.
This memory of my first moment of consciousness leads me to believe that consciousness is nothing more than thinking about your own thinking, rather than just reacting. But take heart fellow religious people! There is strong Biblical and medical evidence that one’s spirit is his immaterial personality software that develops in his soul hardware brain. Upon physical death, the spirit software is transferred from his soul brain to either New Jerusalem (Heaven) or the Place of Torment (the grave, where one’s spirit is in conflict with thinking in the earth and where one waits for Judgment Day). The spiritual math is:
Spirit ≠ Soul
Spirit = Personality Software
Soul = Brain Hardware

5. Life Begins at Consciousness | Chiefy's WordChiefy's Word - April 20, 2014

[…] they can distinguish themselves from their environment; they begin to understand that they are the person in the mirror. That ability seems to set in around the age of two. The brain continues to grow until early […]

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[…] they can distinguish themselves from their environment; they begin to understand that they are the person in the mirror. That ability seems to set in around the age of two. The brain continues to grow until early […]

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