Self-consciousness

self-consciousness 2

What the self is is something that philosophers and psychologists can’t agree upon. My own thoughts about the self are these.

Animals are conscious but not self-conscious. They see, hear, smell, taste and touch things so that their brains can build up a picture of the world around them. Their brains then decide whether they should run away from something, fight it or eat it. Animals don’t include themselves in this picture of the world. They are therefore not self-conscious.

Humans have developed the trick of including themselves in their picture of the world, thereby making themselves self-conscious. This comes in useful when trying to imagine what someone is thinking about you. Are they going to attack you because they think that you have just stolen their piece of cake? It is sometimes useful to be able to put yourself in the place of someone else because in doing so it may suddenly occur to you that, “Ah, maybe he thinks the crumbs around my mouth are from his cake. I’d better make it clear that it wasn’t me”. You know it wasn’t you who stole his cake but he doesn’t, and it’s only by imagining yourself in his place that you can hope to head off the danger.

It’s also useful to include yourself in your picture of the world when you are planning something. You think, “Okay, I will attack the mammoth here and he will then turn to face me and then you throw a rock at his head from up there on the cliff”. This kind of planning is only possible if you include yourself in the plan. It’s almost certain that animals aren’t capable of this level of planning.

Now, including yourself in your picture of the world is a useful trick but it can become an overused habit. We often become self-conscious at social gatherings and this can be either a good or bad thing, depending on how you see yourself. If you have a poor (realistic?) opinion of yourself and you are in the habit of including yourself in your picture of the world, you will hate social situations because they make you feel shy. There are three solutions to this:

1. Try and like yourself more.
2. Stop including yourself in your picture of the world.
3. Don’t go to parties. When you’re alone at home there’s no need to include yourself in your picture of the world. Just watch TV.

If, on the other hand, you have a great opinion of yourself then you will love this kind of social situation. ‘I bet I look great and I am really impressing this girl with my cool conversation’. It will seem to you that your friend’s wedding is less about him and his bride than about you (though remember to keep this to yourself.)

I think that when you are not thinking about yourself the feeling of ‘you’ being present simply disappears. It seems that the self is not a thing but just a feeling that comes over you when your brain includes you in its picture of the world. When it doesn’t, ‘you’ disappear – though of course your body doesn’t.

How to become less self-conscious? My guess is that the best way is through habit. Stop thinking about yourself and get into the habit of looking out at the world. Once you become interested in the things around you you notice that the sky doesn’t fall when you stop monitoring yourself. In fact living becomes very easy once you start taking yourself for granted.

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