AWARENESS: A Human Attribute
The habitat of fish is water and it is woven into the very fabric of its being yet fish doesn’t know about the existence of water just like mankind didn’t know about the presence of air once upon a time. Water has been the only medium it survives in and the fish has had no opportunity to compare its agreeability with any other medium. Not that if such an opportunity to compare arose, the fish would be any wiser and see the distinction, it just doesn’t have the cognitive ability to understand. Animals sleep, drink, eat, mate, play, procreate and socialize instinctually without understanding its meaning, significance and relaxation quotient.
Human beings do all these too but there is a striking distinction to animals, we have the intelligence, cognitive awareness, meta cognition (the ability to think the way we think), perceive, feel, ask questions about the way we exist, why we do certain things, define concepts of right vs. wrong etc. and effect a change in our circumstances. This introspective ability distinguishes us from animals yet when it comes to coping mechanisms we are unable to use this emotional intelligence in conditions of stress. This is not due to lack of intellect but due to abridged awareness of how the mind works and sub-optimal interpretations.
DO ANIMALS HAVE AWARENESS?
Awareness is defined as a human or animal’s ‘perception and cognitive reaction’ to a condition or an event. It is a relative term as animals could be partially aware or totally unaware. Monkeys can distinguish their baby’s cry from the herd as well as distress call from other monkey clans but whilst traversing through the forest when they see a gazelle carcass hung on a tree, they don’t have the intellect to make a linkage that there could be a predator in the vicinity. This ability to make a linkage is very important. Humans possess this in abundance and it is manifested in business, academics, medicine, scientific be it any field. Humans have this remarkable ability to process information and decipher its interconnectedness and we do it both consciously as well as subconsciously, just like breathing. This is seen in work environment when different people process same information differently. It is also the fundamental aspect of academics; how in spite of same knowledge imparted to all students, each one shapes up differently.
Information processing is not linear. Sensory inputs (Sounds, sight, smell, taste, feeling) are compared in the brain with one’s past experience, knowledge, education, specialized training, passion for the subject, sense of mission urgency and so forth to become perception and the same information becomes golden nuggets for some and vapid insignificance for others. This ability to recall events from the past along with relevant spatial and contextual detail is called episodic memory. Some people exercise this extremely well. We caption them as people with remarkable memory but it is sheer application of this ‘recall attribute’ on a sustained level, which these people practice, that strengthens their skill. Mergers, take overs, acquisitions, financial investments, decision to pursue militarized incursions, even daily mundane decisions that people take in life depends on such established linkages after sensory inputs have been agglomerated in the brain along with other aspects mentioned above.
With varying degree of sensitivity, animals can sense danger, realize the presence of a predator and possess artistry to trap their prey.
Chameleon’s have strange eyes, each eye can move independently thereby making them see predator as well as prey simultaneously, a 360 degree vision around the body. They are insectivores and upon sighting a prey a chameleon focuses both eyes in the same direction, attaining stereoscopic vision. Why is this important because a chameleon nabs its prey by releasing its tongue at high-speed, a technique that requires precise ‘distance and depth’ perception. Chameleons can see in both visible and ultraviolet light. Speaking of cultural adaptability, they seem to blend well into the environment due to their ability to change colours but this is a misconception people have. A chameleon changes colour not due to awareness of the environment but due to a change in its mood, aggression, territory, ambient temperature and mating behavior. It just doesn’t have the awareness or intelligence to perceive the surrounding colour and respond with a precise mix and match ability. When it is angry it becomes bright yellow and during mating intent it turns on all of its colours to indicate its mood. Various such intricate survival techniques are there in every animal, insect, mammal, invertebrates etc.
Dolphins have advanced communication skills. Sharks have a keen sense of smell, can detect one drop of blood in a million drops of water(100 litres), smell blood a quarter of a mile away and detect electricity and vibrations in water. Killer whales have acute sense of hearing. Elephants show empathy, grief and intense sense of loss & bereavement. Chimpanzees show altruism, empathy and task smartness. All these brilliant adaptation techniques are at a survival level. Perhaps it is worth mentioning here that in the YouTube clipping (Robin Williams with Koko the Gorilla where Robin says he had a life-changing encounter), the affection the Gorilla demonstrates conveys some level of animal awareness. In this clip, the cues to tickle it, the gorilla’s understanding of more than 1000 signs of American sign language, understanding 2000 words of spoken English, etc. says a different story about awareness levels of animals however deeper research has deciphered that Koko doesn’t understand the meaning behind these signs, she does it because of the associated reward hence her actions are induced by operant conditioning.
Even human language acquisition happens under operant conditioning of repetition, emphasis, association, complex grammatical rules and exposure with environment. Speech perception precedes speech production. In essence it is a fair assumption at this stage to hypothesize that no animal has an understanding of who they really are, they do not have a sense of self hence are never self-conscious. In the movie King Kong directed by Peter Jackson, after vanquishing the dinosaurs, King Kong beats his chest gesticulating invincibility. There seems to be an emerging ego and one can theorise about the gorilla’s sense of self emerging but then this is a movie manifestation hence its objective truth factor is debatable. In any event as we see progressively, primates such as Gorilla’s and Orangutans do have cerebral cortex but it is just 1/3rd the size of humans and this has a bearing on the awareness factor.
In the past, mirror test was administered on animals to see whether they react in a consistent manner. Bonobos, Chimpanzees, Orangutans, Gorillas, Bottlenose Dolphins, European Magpies, Orcas & Elephants could pass the mirror test (called the cognitive elite). These animals/mammals show some semblance of awareness but again at a very rudimentary level. Dolphins and Chimpanzees are the closest to demonstrate some awareness of themselves and anticipate the impact of their actions, something regarded as a uniquely human trait. Even Darwin endorses the idea that apart from humans a few animals such as great apes & cetaceans could have some sense of self.
A human child fails the mirror test till about 18 months. From age of 6 to 12 months, upon seeing itself in the mirror a child sees a sociable playmate. After 12 months self-admiration and embarrassment begins and between 14 to 18 months they show avoidance behavior upon seeing their reflection in the mirror. It is after 18 months they start recognizing the image as their own. Animals, barring a few, lack this capacity.
There is a reason for this lack of awareness in animals. Basic awareness depends on the brain stem and animals have this. Advanced awareness needs cortical participation and most animals do not possess it. Mammals do but amongst mammals the 12-ounce brain in particular the human cerebral cortex is the biggest and incredibly complex. This very physicality alters the whole intellectual balance between human’s and animals. Cerebral cortex is responsible for higher levels of thought, language, human consciousness, and reasoning which animals are bereft of hence humans are able to make developmental progress because of their ability to think.
The build up of all the above is to lead to the suggestion that awareness in its quintessential sense, as of now, is a human phenomenon. Though we possess this wonderfully differentiated attribute, we haven’t explored its elasticity in its entirety. We meander through life with varying degrees of awareness, perhaps even living an animal like existence, just surviving.
Under water, we are just not able to survive like sharks or whales hence their keen sense of smell or hearing versus ours is not an apple to apple comparison but on land where we survive, there are other animal and creatures with vision, hearing , taste, smell, and instinctual feeling far superior to ours yet humans are more intelligent than all these creatures because of our associative properties. The linkage in our brains, the connections we make, the formula’s, the compositions, the chemical & metallurgical sciences we discover, all of which has resulted in we having created weapons, protective gear, shelter, transportation, incredible projects, basically our own habitat that protects etc. From that perspective, even animals and other creatures have created their own habitat tucked away from predators for instance a bee-hive, or a burrow, ant colonies, lion’s den etc. and they live there with the happiness and social deportment that they are capable of enjoying. From a human stand point there seems to be no progress or growth for these animals who just live, survive procreate and die with low awareness without creating anything new. This brings us to an important construct, for what purpose is this awareness capability of ours useful to us?
IMPORTANCE OF AWARENESS
Perception is the predominant reason for most problems people encounter. Perception is the result of a combination of sensory inputs coming into the brain, its fusion with past information residing there plus our thinking and meaning-making attribute. Since humans have been endowed with the cerebral cortex we have the ability to think. On an average, 60000 separate thoughts inundate our mind everyday, most of which are about mundane daily activities. Mind is in overdrive and there is repetition in this pattern almost daily. Same set of worries, catastrophising about future, financial worries, perceived insults or rudeness, generalizations about people inferred from one isolated bad experience, mind reading, polarized thinking and innumerable other thinking traps. Heightening our awareness from a substratum level to mainstream consciousness is important for better perception that has remarkable linkage with health.
Awareness is bifurcated into:
- Physical Awareness
- Mental Awareness
- Emotional Awareness
- Physical awareness is about understanding our body, using sight, sound, taste, feel, smell basically awareness about one’s senses as well as an understanding that the physical structure of our body needs to be preserved and its flexibility felt. Yoga, Art of living, meditation, Reiki, exercise and various other techniques helps in this mind-body connect. Anosognosia is a deficit of self-awareness in which a person with a disability is unaware of the existence of his/her disability. For example, a patient after a paralytic stroke can move his left arm and legs but not the right side ones. Doctors inform him about the paralysis but the patient is unaware of the right-side lack of movement. A loss of physical awareness of one’s condition and this happens due to physiological damage to brain structure.
- Mental awareness is the ability to perceive what is happening in our world like personal safety, self-defense, self-preservation, recalling from memory, interacting with people, understanding conversations and dialogues, make meaning out of it, being present and ability to listen and comprehend when others converse.
- Emotional Awareness or call it emotional intelligence is of immense interest to us as it has considerable impact on our overall well-being. It is about mastering our thoughts, emotions, language and understanding the way we script our brain daily. Why is it important because it affects the way we feel which in turn affects the way we take decisions and which subsequently affect our actions. Due to our lack of emotional awareness, due to thinking traps, misperceptions about existence etc., even a minor incident can trigger disproportionate stress. Coaching and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) addresses many of these aspects due to its reflective nature whilst deeper trauma and past constraints kind of problems lie in the realm of psychotherapy interventions (Psychoanalysis, CBT, Humanistic, Existential etc.).
OTHER FORMS OF AWARENESS OR CONSCIOUSNESS
There are innumerable other forms of consciousness a few of them perhaps esoteric such as: Higher consciousness, Collective consciousness, Buddha consciousness, Super-consciousness and so forth. Higher consciousness results in absolute control over one’s mind and is regarded as a developed state of consciousness in which attention and stimulus control is improved, refined and enhanced and one moves beyond thought and perception.
A state that is at a significant variance from wakeful consciousness (beta wave state). Altered awareness is used for therapeutic purposes as well as for enhanced sensations. Triggers for altered state could be consistent deep breathing, whirling, incantatory chanting, nitrogen narcosis as in deep diving, dreaming, fever, sleep & oxygen deprivation, traumatic accident, hypnotic inductions, meditative practices, sensory deprivation, extreme temperature exposures and psychoactive drugs that alter cognition and perception. Trance states can also be induced with Shamanic practices such as drumming, fasting, and dancing. Alcohol, drugs, smoking, all have a huge list of subscribers seeking altered state purely for enhanced sensations purpose but this approach has considerable side effects, substance dependency leading on to addiction hence discouraged.
Buddhism professes mindfulness or insight meditation (Vipassana) as a state of awareness where one’s attention is focused upon registering feelings, thoughts, and sensations exactly as they occur, without elaboration, preference, selection, comments, censorship, judgment or interpretation. Buddhism also emphasizes ‘nothingness’ and ‘stillness of the mind’ that could be invoked with meditation. Buddhist meditative state in its deepest connotation apart from inducing absolute state of calm and relaxation can also obliterate ‘sense of self’, and aid ‘desertion of personality’. This creates a dichotomy in human thinking as on one side we differentiate from animals due to our sense of self and in meditation we seem to want to dissociate with the ‘self’. The correlation here between self and ego also needs to be explored. Sleep induces schism from ‘the self’ temporarily but we regain it once we wake up. The Buddhist aspect is broached upon here only for an introduction into the enormity of various constructs that constitute awareness.
Psychotherapy, Coaching, NLP are all administered under full consciousness and with high interactivity between therapist/ coach and the participant. Hypnotherapy on the other hand is an altered state therapy and it suppresses the conscious mind to reveal the subconscious where most constraints reside. It is designed to tap into the subconscious mind through talk and the participant experiences a deep sense of relaxation and highly narrowed down focus hence extremely amenable to suggestions. Though it induces trance like condition, the participant experiences a keen sense of awareness of the hypnotist’s voice facilitating the hypnotist to plant suggestions, theories, lifestyle alterations, alleviate phobias, and many other beneficial aspects. 85 % of people respond to clinical hypnotherapy and it is considered natural and safe with no side-effects. Ironically one altered state could be used to cure another addictive altered state. Hypnotherapy is becoming one of the effective approaches to cure smoking. Some of the altered states are very useful for health improvement and combating disease.
The frame-work and discussion thread provided here has not even barely begun to scratch the surface of meta-cognition and aspects associated with mind, consciousness and awareness but the central theme is to make one aware about the existence of these concepts that needs to be delved and researched into much more depth if one seeks to attain perceptual accuracy. As humans we may decide to live at the lowest level of awareness (bare survival) but this is mere animal existence and not making use of our cortical capabilities. Awareness doesn’t lead one to monastic existence; it intensifies life’s pursuit be it whichever field. Higher awareness lifts us from the mundane, helps us grow intellectually, emotionally, co-exist with harmony on this planet, indulge in path-breaking projects, scientific ambitions, artistic deliverance, meaningful philanthropy, community contributions and various stimulating and fulfilling experiences.
Awareness is not something that incidentally comes to us in the course of our life’s traverse; one has to systematically and deliberately seek out for it. Nations are being progressively freed from oppressive rule (feudalism, fascism, patriarchy), but are we still living a repressive regime in our head fostered by our own inadequacies in thinking. Implicit in this question is the basic assumption that perhaps all of us are repressed to varying degrees. Do we have the freedom of choice, decision & action, yes we undoubtedly have but such is not our inference as we seem to be tied down to something always; our jobs, our habits, our rituals, our beliefs, our skills, our coping mechanisms. Even unexpressed emotion manifests in repression. Mind has to be expurgated of these repressions, limiting beliefs and thinking traps. As Sigmund Freud put it ‘Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.’ Awareness about one’s own mind, consciousness and perception is the basic requisite before one steps into any professional, academic, social, philanthropic, political, economical, art, sports, medicine basically any arena. Its delivery has to be invoked and encouraged right from primary education.