Self-consciousness is the feeling of existing (“ I am “).
It is self-awareness: an experience lived in each of us without the need for evidence or scientific evidence. When we attribute an existence to ourselves or to another person, we recognize a self-consciousness.
Often by “conscience”, in medical language, we mean the concept of wakefulness.
Wakefulness and alertness are functions of the central nervous system: they presuppose an adequate efficiency of the reticular formation of the brainstem and a balance in the synthesis of neurotransmitters.
Self-awareness, on the other hand, is difficult to reduce to a specific brain function. It is not something that can be increased by improving the efficiency of the nervous system. Rather, it’s not even a thing .
Self-consciousness is not an object that we have, but it is the awareness of to be and to reflect on our presence in the world.
Therefore it should not be “controlled” or manipulated; it is already present in us and we can only let it manifest and expand.
Vigilance and concentration are located in the brain. Self-awareness is instead represented by our whole body, and even beyond (as we will see).
Self-consciousness is born within the individual subject (myself in flesh and blood), in the moment in which I reflect and recognize my personal existence (“I am”).
To be able to express itself in the world, the individual ego needs the functioning of the organism and the nervous system: it’s inconceivable to think of an individual without a body with which to express himself and without a world in which to live (as Heidegger states when he describes man as “Being-in-the-world”, underlining the inseparable unity between subject and object).
However, if I reduce self-consciousness to brain functions, I will have an automaton as a result, not a living being.
An automaton is passive , always equal to itself in its stimulus-response reactions. self-consciousness is instead an incessant activity of self-overcoming.
According to K. Jaspers, the human being acquires awareness of himself through four modalities (or “formal characters”): feeling of self-activity, consciousness of unity of the subject, consciousness of identity of himself, awareness of borders of me.
Self-activity is the feeling of customization of existence, which allows us to recognize life as ours.
The most significant characteristic of self-consciousness is precisely that of being active energy.
The other psychic and neurological functions are passive: thinking, memory, sensation, perception, etc. they all need, to be real and concrete, to be activated by a higher function, self-awareness.
Each neurological and psychic function can also act without the thrust of awareness: as a result we will have, however, only a set of automatisms, of predictable reactions in response to environmental stimuli (similar to a reflex arc).
Each activity of the subject implies one effort of will.
K. Schneider uses the term “streben “to indicate this active drive of will individual . It is a term used in German romantic philosophy to indicate the innate tendency of man to know himself, through the problematic overcoming the obstacles that the world offers us.
This active drive to know oneself alludes to an inevitable experience of suffering of the subject: the awareness of existing arises from the feeling of a problem, of an opposition, of a conflict between myself and the external world, without which it would be impossible to define my presence (dialectical moment of antithesis ).
I can define “who I am” only by exclusion, through the awareness of “what I am not” and my defects: this is inevitably a painful experience.
The suffering of the subject is not, however, an end in itself: it is essential, as a price to pay to know oneself (the concept of learning through pain is already present in ancient Greece, from the time of Aeschylus: “pathei mathos” ).
From this point of view, even what is negative and “evil” is not meaningless, but has a necessary, albeit unpleasant, function for the evolution of our personality.
A painful event is like an unwelcome occasion: it can make the subject mature or plunge into despair, depending on the attitude of the individual and his ability to accept suffering and giving it meaning.
Psychic life and the possibility of knowing who we are are born from the painful original dialectical tension.
I myself tend, first of all, to identify myself with the mind and the brain, with my empirical person, with the name and surname that have been assigned to me.
In the course of life, however, I have to face the sad awareness of being limited, finite, defective. If I identify myself with mind and body, I will inevitably experience the sensation of being a useless drop within an ocean infinitely larger than me and indifferent to my fate.
This is the condition of suffering to which the selfish individual is destined, who intends to safeguard his personal identity closing to the relationship with others; in this way, paradoxically, the subject condemns himself to perceive in every moment the experiences of loneliness, helplessness and isolation. His body is not the tool to make contact with the other, but it becomes an oppressive prison.
This particular ego (narcissist, to use a psychoanalytic term) must evolve, go beyond itself, even at the cost of an effort of the will that is a source of suffering, to aspire to become an universal self.
The purpose of existence is to reach the ideal oneunion between subject and object: between my person and other individuals (dialectical moment of synthesis).
When the identity of the individual ego coincides with the universal unity, the subject feels authentically part of a Whole (“a docile fiber of the universe”, as Ungaretti writes). The identity of the individual is not canceled, rather it is strengthened by cohesion with the outside world.
To be more precise, in this state of ecstasy there is not even a distinction between the “internal” and “external” world.
If before I had the feeling of being an insignificant drop in the sea, now I can identify with the ocean itself. It is a sensation corresponding to bliss: an inner state rare in the common man, achieved mostly in the moment of an intense moment of well-being and harmony.
If the ego, on the other hand, perceives a prolonged separation and disintegration from the other and from the world, feelings of anguish and despair suddenly arise.
In the immediate experience of our life, the boundaries of ourselves correspond to the body, which delimits our internal space from the surrounding world. But is it a rigid barrier? No, it is a ground of exchange: our biological body, in order to live, needs at every moment to connect to nature to breathe, eat, drink and carry out essential vital functions.
Even the psyche, being part of the body, is continuously in relationship with the world: in our daily experience, each of us spontaneously tends to identify similarities between one’s own existence and that of others, and empathize with the life of others : we feel sympathy, contempt, joy, anger and infinite shades of feelings when we reflect ourselves in another person (the more familiar an individual is, the more these feelings are intense).
When we watch a movie, we identify with and feel emotion for the sad fate of an individual, are we just our body and our mind? Or do we also exist in that character?
When we are at the stadium and our favorite team scores, we all hug each other. Where is our individuality? It has not disappeared, but at the same time it is present within all the players and all the other fans of the team. Any football lover can understand that joy. It has become universal.
So does it make sense to delimit self boundaries to our physical body?
In the attitude of opening towards the external world and towards other subjects, the boundaries of my individual ego expand, until I feel one with universal harmony: in this way, the individual ego evolves into a Self with the “S” Capital, infinite, which contains the experience of all the other subjects of every time and place, beyond the constraints of intellectual categories.
It is very difficult to reduce self-consciousness to a brain mechanism. Indeed, it is harmful: the ego-intellect identification is often present in people suffering from severe psychic disorders.
The mind, by definition, analyzes and breaks down reality in order to better study and elaborate it. It divides and separates, both things and people. It then tends to amplify thoughts and feelings, to the point of presenting the subject with often distorted images of himself and others.
If I identify myself with the mind, I will be destined to live experiences of separation, fragmentation and dissociation: they correspond to the feelings of alienation is depersonalization , sources of the most intense suffering and anguish.
Not surprisingly, depression and suicidal behaviors are higher in the more intellectually and productively developed countries, where the identification between the subject and the rational mind is more widespread, and the equation between human and machine is greater.
How can I overcome the illusion of being a finite, limited, mechanical and separate object from the rest of the world? First of all through the recovery of an authentic inner dialogue and reflection active about myself, beyond the intrusive and automatic thoughts that often come from our mind (and which we mistakenly assume are true).
Inner dialogue is also the starting point for building a healthy relationship with the other (which goes beyond a generic interpersonal exploitation): if I am really in contact with my feelings, I will be able to see corresponding experiences and parts of me in any other person.
When in the other I can see the same dialectic of feelings that exists in me, my individual ego transcends itself to open to the universal Self.
The psychotherapist has the delicate task of helping the individual to unmask the deceptions of the mind and to reveal the infinite potential already present in each of us.
For further information on ego consciousness disorders, the following article is proposed: