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The Evolutionary Origins of Self

The Neurology of Awareness and Self: Part Five

written by Rick Hanson February 4, 2020
The Evolutionary Origins of Self

Part Five: The Evolutionary Origins of Self

The dualistic ego-mind is essentially a survival mechanism, on a par with the fangs, claws, stingers, scales, shells, and quills that other animals use to protect themselves. By maintaining a separate self-sense, it attempts to provide a haven of security . . . Yet the very boundaries that create a sense of safety also leave us feeling cut off and disconnected. – John Welwood


To help ourselves – and others, perhaps – to transcend the self, it helps to understand why the self arises in the brain – in other words, to understand the survival functions of the self and their evolutionary origins.

By addressing those needs of the organism through ways other than self, we can, in effect, thank self for its vigilance and its labors throughout the years, and then say, “Goodnight sweet prince,” and put self to bed, at least for a time – and, perhaps with liberation, forever.

So, where did this self come from, anyway?

Origins of Rudimentary Self

Our account of the development of self in evolution – and its related architecture in the brain – is straightforward, but it can get a little thorny, so we are going to take it step by step, with numbers, no less.

The key question we will try to answer is:

How does the brain construct the two fundamental properties of self: identity and agency?
  1. As Damasio and others have noted, with rudimentary core consciousness – imagine that of a worm or a fly – there are basic representations of the state of an organism’s body. Those representations comprise the experience of the organism.
  2. With rudimentary memory functions, repeated representations of experiences become summarized and represented themselves as the experiential history of the organism. These representations embody expectations about the future given certain pasts. For example, learning that enables an organism to survive – such as a flatworm learning to turn left in a maze to avoid an electric shock – is a representation of a part of the experiential history of that organism.
  3. In each representation of the state of the organism’s body, there is a built-in reference to a particular body distinct from the environment and other organisms. In a worm or a fly – or deep in a human brain stem – this reference is certainly not conceptual, but an implicit, embedded localization of where those states of the body are occurring. Further, this localization, this particularity, is enriched and strengthened by the association of different sensations of the body with each other, since they happen at the same time.
  4. Over time, there is a continuity of implicit references to a particular body, giving rise to representations of the ongoing existence of a particular organism. Again: not conceptual representations, but more like the way that dot-dot-dot – point-point-point – of moments of references to a particular body soon look like a continuous line.
  5. These representations of bodily individuality and continuity likely form a kind of architecture, with most elemental representations at the bottom, and increasingly summary representations-of-representations – and representations-of- representations-of-representations-of-representations, and so on – built up from more elemental levels. For example, as an embodied learning that helps an organism to survive, there are likely clusterings of similar references-to-a-particular-persisting-body, such as: the- body-at-rest, the-hungry-body-seeking-food, the-body-mating, etc. In turn, these references to a particular body in particular states become cross-referenced and represented summarily as a particular body persisting through multiple states.
  6. So then what we have is stability of a particular body against a backdrop of change. At a rudimentary and fundamental level, that stability gets represented as a specific physical identity distinct from the world.
  7. This representation aids goal-directed survival activities. In effect, in a very basic sense, this representation supports intentions which, if they were put into words, would be along the lines of: “avoiding painful things happening to this body and pursuing pleasant things.” At the most basic level, those intentions are probably represented as a sequence of representations of the body acting upon the world. In essence, this is a representation of an agent acting upon an object.
  8. In addition to these representations of states-of-body, at some fairly low level of neurological complexity, there begin to be representations of states-of-mind – starting with the most elemental experiences of pain and relief from pain, and then as one moves up the evolutionary ladder, becoming more elaborate and nuanced with emotions and socially-related experiences such as basic empathy. The capacity to represent states of mind gives an organism significant survival advantages, through offering more things to learn from, and through widening the repertoire of what could be motivating for an organism and thus encouraging of adaptive activities. And it enables linked intentions: “avoiding painful mental states and pursuing pleasant mental states.” Like physical intentions, these mental intentions probably also take the form of sequences of action-toward-mental-state, which also have the inherent, implicit structure of agency applied to object.
  9. These mental states are presumably associated with simultaneous bodily states. So then we assume that there develops an architecture of representations of linked mental-and-physical states, culminating in a specific physical-and-mental identity distinct from the world.
  10. In parallel with mental and physical states, there is the experiencing of those states. Not, at the level of a worm, necessarily by a subject in any sense that we would use that term as applied to a human, or even an ape or a dog – but as a bare, completely stimulus-bound registration of sensations in the most elemental awareness. Since the nervous system is fairly stable, there is a likely a similarity from moment to moment of the attributes of experiencing itself. In a sense, the experience of experiencing is pretty consistent, pretty stable, over time. The stability of experiencing is thus distinct from the variability of the contents of experience – which are physical and mental states – and so experiencing, and thus the awareness that is woven into experiencing, also seems to have a relatively stable identity over time.
  11. Further, awareness also gets associated with simultaneous bodily and mental states. In the ways we have just discussed, presumably, those associations get represented and an architecture of representations of representations forms, culminating in a specific physical-and-mental-and-awareness identity distinct from the world – and associated with intentions to avoid painful experiences and seek pleasant ones, which means being an agent, an actor, in the world.

And thus the self is born.
At least in its most elemental form.

Evolution of Complex Self

Moving up the evolutionary ladder, the brain stem architecture of self that we have described so far gets more stories as the layers of the reptilian brain and the limbic system get added on.

With added neurological equipment come added capabilities. For example, territoriality and possessiveness come on-line: red ants try to kill black ants, sea turtles protect their nests, and rats fight over food, and so on.

Presumably, the elemental self gets associated in the brain with its territories and possessions, and the representation of that association is the beginnings of identification: “You mess with my eggs, buster, and you’re messing with me.”

Then, with the development of the neomammalian and then the primate brain, more stories get added, and we have a tall office building – 50 floors maybe – of self in the brain of a horse or an orangutan.

With these neurological developments, really interesting things start to happen, such as:

  • Self in relation to a mate or others.
  • Self that has empathic sensing of the states of others that are distinct from one’s own.
  • Representations of personal identity – in effect, a kind of primitive self-concept, self known to itself – that is beginning to be teased out in studies of higher mammals, especially primates.

And last, with the advent of the human brain around 150,000 years ago – and perhaps really with the advent of linguistic and cultural capabilities in the brain that some scholars think appeared about 40,000 years ago – we have the full flowering of the architecture of the self, a veritable skyscraper of “me, myself, and mine.”

For example, the wonderful frontal and temporal lobes give us autobiographical consciousness, with which we can reflect upon ourselves in the past and imagine ourselves in the future. We can predict what we might experience in different situations, and plan accordingly. We can tell stories about ourselves, change our personal narratives sometimes, and even love our inner child.

In sum, we have inherited an architecture of self grounded in brain structures designed by evolution to promote survival in extremely harsh conditions.

This brain structure of self is what it is – but now we live in different times, with much more knowledge about our own brain. Therefore, we have vastly more opportunities for managing and even transcending the tendencies of our brains, and thus, our minds.

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