Origins of Self-consciousness

For a brain to be self-conscious it must be able to represent the world symbolically, which implies the use of symbols such as marks, visual shapes and patterns, rhythmic and tonal patterns. Extended memory is a primary requirement for a self-conscious brain. By definition, a self-conscious brain must also include language, with an innate set of grammatical rules, or syntax. For a brain to be self-conscious, it must be able to think abstractly, question, predict, generalize, categorize, and reason.

My theory of the origins of self-consciousness proposes that the combination of increased brain capacity, intensified socialization, and introspection has resulted in THE SEARCH FOR PERSONAL AND SOCIAL IDENTITY, which ultimately led to our ability to think about ourselves both privately and socially.

Proto symbolism:

Signals, such as sounds, pheromones, and colored areas of the body (adapted for attraction and camouflage) in multi-celled creatures are primitive forms of symbolism. They represent meaningful desires.

Early symbolism:

As animals evolved, symbolism became more sophisticated, such as the ‘waggle dance’ of worker bees, in which choreographed movements of the bees provide specific directions to food sources. Various mammals use body movements, as well as sounds including hissing, purring, licking, and growling, to make their opinions known.

Primate symbolism:

As early primates became increasingly socialized, symbolism became more evolved, including the use of facial signals, elaborate body motions and attitudes. Some chimpanzees have learned sign-language in captivity. However, they show no inclination to teach it to others. Chimpanzees learn through imitation. ‘They can transmit observable skills, but not abstract ones.’1

Early Homo symbolism:

As Homo habilis (3.2m) learned to make and use tools, and Homo erectus (1.8m) migrated from Africa to other parts of the world, various communal strategies, including primitive forms of symbolic language, evolved as a means of surviving new environments.

Homo erectus imitated animal sounds. They also used facial signals including smiles, pouts, eyebrow movements, staring, and lip-smacking. Sounds were combined with facial expressions to communicate simple basic intentions and reactions such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, ‘sweet’, and ‘sour’.1 With increased communication came deeper social attachments.

In Homo erectus, we see the first significant positional descent of the voice box, which would have increased their ability to produce more human-like sounds, perhaps with some added inflection.

These systems didn’t just appear overnight. Early hominids evolved specialized brain circuits that could express and process symbols, such as meaningful grunts, growls, and whistles, facial expressions and hand signals. These evolved into brain processes that could imitate the sounds of other animals, read and interpret elaborate signals, form social attachments and express early forms of imagination, creativity, and planning. Ultimately these brain circuits expanded to be able to express the kinds of symbolic repertoire that we see in humans.

Late Homo symbolism:

Archaic Homo sapiens used fire to keep warm and cook food beginning 200 thousand years ago.2 Sometime between 200 and 50 thousand years ago, three elements converged to increase the probability of apes becoming human.

1) increased brain capacity and specialization (due to more protein from a greater amount of meat being introduced into the diet)

2) intensified socialization (group time sitting before the fire, proto-language development, strengthening of gender roles, increased empathy toward others)

3) introspection (the artifacts of fire, including eeriness, smoke, sounds, smell, introduced an internal aspect of otherworldliness or surrealism, perhaps hallucinations and trances, and the incarnation of spirit figures such as the moon, snake, bear, or bison)

These three developments would have caused increased selective pressure on the already highly evolved brains of Archaic hunter-gatherers.

Along with more specialized brain circuits, extended planning ability, having a greater sense of how others feel and think, and exploring a deeper understanding of oneself would have provided a clear advantage in utilizing resources, developing hunting, gathering, and defense strategies, and promoting alliances and social bonding.

As a rule, the better we can adapt to our environment, the more comfortable we are, the more we tend to maintain the status-quo and the less we are motivated to change our circumstances. However, when things are not working well, when we are struggling against the environment, or unable to adapt to unfamiliar or dangerous conditions, we are more likely to expend energy developing and exploring strategies and methods that promise to be more adaptive.

Sitting around the fire, night upon night, experiencing its ghostly effects on the psyche would have provided easy access to emotions and thoughts. It may have started a process of self-exploration and expression and excited early forms of myth and ritual. It would have tightened social bonding and strengthened tribal identity.

Perhaps Archaic Homo sapiens were not able to adapt quickly enough to the new and complex social changes in their environment, brought on by the domestication of fire. This could have created unrest, and may account for the flurry of activity surrounding the beginning of human evolution.

Early Homo sapiens sapiens (human) symbolism:

My theory of the origins of self-consciousness proposes that the combination of increased brain capacity, intensified socialization, and introspection has resulted in:


In early human society, beginning 40 thousand years ago, this took the form of:

1) shamanism and cave temples (i.e. myth, tribal ritual, spirit-leader)

2) creative arts (i.e. statuettes, cave paintings, musical instruments, song, dance)

3) information technology (i.e. counting, calendars, migration data)

4) syntactical language (i.e. sharing personal thoughts and feelings, describing events, storytelling)

Myth and tribal ritual, what has evolved into modern-day religion, may have been an important factor in stimulating the desire to know ourselves and others. The need for religion or spiritual unity appears to be innate. Today religion and other forms of spiritual awakening provide a powerful context for exploring and sharing personal and social ‘identity’. Humans share a strong desire to understand the unknown. The search for understanding is a uniquely human characteristic that provides a profound survival advantage. But organized powers can also be stifling and misleading. The more we can conjecture, understand, and explain the world around us, the better we are able to adapt to our surroundings. The quest for knowledge and understanding may have begun as a response to the biological imperative of the absence of a shared purpose. Each of us must discover his or her own purpose in life.

There were other forces that influenced the lives of early humans, such as the weather, an abundance of animals, predators, and neighboring enemies. When it was too cold or too hot, when there was drought or unending rain, not enough food, or contentious enemies to worry about, there would have been a natural inclination for elders to implore and worship a ‘spirit-leader’ to reverse the unfavorable conditions and salve tribal fears. It would also have removed pressure from the ‘failed’ elders. The inability to solve long-term problems that threatened the peace and security of the tribe could easily have led to a formalization of hope, prayer, and tribal ritual. The abstract concept of a spirit-god was born.

In Paleolithic times, artistic expression was often carried out through ritual. But it also served as a vehicle for individual expression. Young artists today are typically motivated not only to conceive meaningful explanations and models of the world, but to create art as a means of exploring personal and social identity. This drive seems to be inherent, but, as with most innate talent, requires development with a learning curve.

Today, the desire to share knowledge through information technology is also clearly innate. The production and dissemination of new forms of knowledge is highly useful for society and individuals in problem solving, and its various forms are widespread across different cultures.

Between 50 and 100 thousand years ago, intensified socialization must have put tremendous pressure on early Homo sapiens communities to communicate more fluently, using language. In order for this to happen, the brain needed to be able to process abstract symbols, but also the muscles of the voice box, mouth, and tongue had to be coordinated in order to produce complex speech sounds. Earlier, bipedalism, which made possible the interruption of exhalation, a precondition for speech, and an anatomically lowered voice box, made it possible for Homo sapiens ‘to laugh, sing and speak.’3 But it also raises provocative questions: Did thinking precede speech, or vice-versa? Did thought and speech coevolve? Exactly how are thought and speech related?

Ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, fashion, sports, politics all trigger deeply emotional instincts within us. At bottom, they are related to our desire to discover or maintain personal and social identity. Other basic instincts such as the need for food, sex, money, clothing, housing are more concerned with procreation and survival.

The search for ourselves truly separates us from other animals. It has significantly shaped the lives of modern humans, and it is likely that it is has been the driving force for our evolved consciousness.

Who knows where this journey will take us as we evolve toward super-consciousness?

1 Mary E. Clark, In Search of Human Nature
2 Richard Wrantham, Catching Fire: How Cooked Food Made us Human
3 Robert Provine, Laughter