I exist when the self doesn't

Awareness: How we learn who we are

How do I know I exist? The philosopher Prof. Dr. Kristina Musholt. In an interview, she explains how people learn who they are - and why they cannot do it on their own

GEO.de: Ms. Musholt, a large part of your research revolves around the concept of self-awareness. What is that?

Prof. Dr. Kristina Musholt: In everyday language we understand self-confidence as the quality of being convinced of yourself, of having confidence in yourself. The term self-awareness is used in philosophy differently and in a much more limited way. Here, self-awareness is the ability to grasp thoughts of the self. Something like: I'm hungry. I feel like going outside. I feel pain.

Is it this self-awareness that sets us apart from animals?

That is very difficult to answer. I don't see the concept of self-awareness black or white, i.e. existent or not - but its development as a gradual, step-like process. For example, I would ascribe to animals an implicit, pre-reflective self-awareness. This has nothing to do with language or ego thoughts, but describes the basic feeling that I have for my body, as well as the fact that I always perceive everything I have experienced from a very specific perspective. When a being moves through the environment, it has to have a feeling for its own body, and of course it also perceives the world from its perspective. However, it does not have to be aware of this perspective itself.

And people can do more?

I would actually only ascribe the explicit self-consciousness that reflects on itself to people. That leads to questions like: Who do I actually want to be? Is this decision right now or not? However, there is no clear boundary between implicit and explicit self-awareness, but a gray area. Because the awareness of myself does not necessarily have to be expressed through language. For example, chimpanzees or crows pass the mirror test, in which a red dot is painted on a child's face to check whether they perceive it as a dot on their body or as a dot on their counterpart. If the child then tries to wipe the point off their face, they have understood: What I see in the mirror in front of me is me.

However, the mirror test is not undisputed either.

That's right - and you could argue for a long time about what it actually shows. However, when viewed in the context of other skills emerging at the same age as children pass it, it is still very interesting. Mostly they pass the test between 18 and 24 months; over the same period, they often begin to show signs of shame and empathy. Often times when a baby cries, all of the other babies in the room will start crying too. If a toddler falls down and cries, another toddler can register: This is not my pain, but someone else's. I can help him, comfort him and also be empathetic, but it doesn't hurt myself. The child differentiates between himself and others. In order to answer whether the mirror test in animals is meaningful, one would have to look at whether these other abilities are also available. Whether they treat others with empathy or feel shame - that is of course difficult to measure in animals.

So we humans do not come into the world with a full awareness of ourselves either. How do we develop this?

We are not born with an explicit awareness of ourselves, we do not come into the world and can reflect on ourselves. But the implicit self-awareness, the perception of our body, we have from birth. How we perceive it is very much determined at the beginning of our life by the interaction with other people: my feeling of hunger, my temperature, whether I feel well - all of this depends on what my caregivers are doing. In the case of newborns, this is not yet properly separated: babies probably do not differentiate between what the self is and what the caregiver is. Slowly, however, people are beginning to differentiate.

How does he do it?

The child gradually notices that it has a certain effect on its environment: when it drops the rattle, a noise is created. When it screams, the mother comes. This is not yet an explicit self-awareness, it only changes significantly at the age of nine to twelve months. Some researchers speak of a nine-month revolution.

What is happening in this revolution?

In science, one speaks of the transition from a dyadic to a triadic interaction: In the first nine months, the child's attention is mostly directed to another person or an object. At the age of around nine to twelve months, the phenomenon of divided attention to an object occurs, creating a triangular relationship. For example, at that age children often start pointing at objects. They want the caregiver to look there too and check it out. If mom or dad doesn't look, they point one more time and more energetically at the object. In this phase of life a new awareness develops: I can perceive something in the world. But that doesn't mean that someone else will automatically notice it - but I can draw their attention to it. This shows that at this age children gradually begin to understand that other people have a perception of the world that may be different from their own.

So my self-awareness is defined by the others. A little thought game: Would it be possible at all, in a world in which only I exist, in which there are no other living beings - except perhaps plants - to develop self-awareness?

A difficult question that psychology and philosophy have long tried to answer. The Hohenstaufer Emperor Friedrich II initiated terrible experiments in which one tried to let children grow up in isolation - apart from nutrition, they had no interaction, no one should caress them, no one talk to them. So they wanted to find out whether they could still acquire a language. However, the children simply died - so it is probably not biologically possible. In a pure thought experiment it would perhaps be conceivable that people would gain awareness of themselves without other people, but that would be dramatically different from ours.

In what way?

If the discussion about how other people see the world did not take place, certain questions would not arise at all. "What do I think of that? What is my opinion? ”I only ask myself when someone confronts me with an opposing or differing perspective. If you just move under plants, that doesn't happen. I find it hard to imagine that then you get to the point of developing such thoughts. So you would probably develop a feeling for your body and perceive how you work in the world - but the occasions for a more differentiated reflection about yourself would simply be missing.

What kind of relationships with other people do young children need in order to develop a “healthy” self-awareness?

Very different things are important here, such as the dialogue at eye level or the close bond with caregivers such as the parents through touch and gestures. However, a lot of research is still necessary in this area. It is very important that we women researchers do not look at the topic from an overly western perspective.

What do you mean?

That such ties may express themselves very differently in other cultures. In Germany, for example, the majority of researchers say it is important that we have a lot of eye contact with babies and that we mirror their facial expressions. But there are cultures in which the children lie on their mothers' backs in a sling all day long. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that these children will automatically develop worse. What is conveyed more through eye contact in the West is perhaps more conveyed through body contact there. In western societies we also place great value on autonomy and self-determination and raise our children accordingly. In other cultures, on the other hand, the community is more in the foreground.

Our interview partner Prof. Dr. Kristina Musholt

The philosopher and studied neuroscientist Prof. Dr. Kristina Musholt is professor of cognitive anthropology at the University of Leipzig. She is a board member of the Leipzig Research Center for Early Childhood Development, founded in 2016, in which educational sciences, psychology and philosophy, evolutionary anthropology as well as cognitive and neurosciences are combined.

Musholt researches how people become aware of themselves, what role interaction with others plays in this and how people integrate norms and values ​​into their personalities. “As a philosopher, I see my job at the research center as bringing together the many findings from the other disciplines,” says Musholt.

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