The next time you look at your reflection in the mirror, take a few moments to study your face. Really look at it. Touch it. Trace the contours, the fine lines – the little features that are distinctively yours.
There’s a remarkable process happening in your brain as you do this. It’s the concurrent association between what you feel and what you see based on the information sent from your fingertips, face and eyes to your brain, where it is then compiled to create a multi-sensory image of your face. But it goes much further than that. Your brain is also recognizing the reflected face as its own.
Looking at your mirror image, you don’t merely see yourself. You see your self. You acknowledge your existence from within, beyond the looking glass. Yes, somewhere in that midst of grey matter and firing neurons is your consciousness. Your selfhood. Your inner voice.
We haven’t yet substantiated this capability beyond simply acknowledging that we are; although we’ve been trying to find an answer for as long as we have been able to ask the question. Despite our best efforts, there are still no definitive conclusions as to where this ability originates and how it works. Our earliest account of this pursuit goes back to Hippocrates, in the fifth century B.C., when he differentiated between the mind and the brain; the mind being the part of the brain that embodies consciousness. His insight is chiefly responsible for the two and a half thousand years of neuroscience that followed.
But what is consciousness?
It has long been believed that consciousness is proof of the soul or is the soul itself, as Descartes sought to prove in 1641. He theorized that it was composed of an ethereal substance stored in the brain that he referred to as res cogitans, or mental substance. He dissected the brain searching for the vessel for where this substance, the soul, was contained and discovered what we now know to be the pineal body. Sorry, no soul – just an endocrine gland that produces melatonin. It was an earnest effort, especially for his time, but in the nearly 400 years since then, we have yet to do much better at providing an explanation.
Regardless of whether consciousness is or is not the human soul, if there really is such a thing, it has allowed us many gains over other animal species. But as advantageous as this ability has been for our species, we have yet to graduate beyond the kingdom Animalia. Fundamentally, we are still just multicellular, eukaryotic organisms. Or as Bloodhound Gang so poetically waxed, “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals.”
There may even come a time, as evolution permits, when we’re not alone in our ability either. Studies have revealed a measurable and varying degree of self-awareness in elephants, bottlenose dolphins, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, rhesus macaques, orcas, European magpies, and our closest genetic relative, the bonobo. It isn’t a common ability in animals, but neither is it unique to humans.
Our upper-hand is that we are not basically self-aware; we have evolved to become Meta self-aware, or self-conscious. This allows us to be cognizant of what we feel and desire, to empathize with others, to assess our own motives, to differentiate between right and wrong behavior, and to evaluate how we are perceived and valued by others. Despite these rather beneficial traits, we are capable of being shockingly cruel and inhumane.
There seems to be a primal component to our self-conscious mind that has enabled us to commit atrocities with a kind of depraved creativity not seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom, such as torture and genocide. Bonobos don’t waterboard or electrocute other bonobos. No faction of African elephants has ever been hell bent on wiping out all Asian elephants because they believe them to be genetically inferior.
While we may be more highly evolved than our ape ancestors and other animal species, are we really better off? Are we superior?
On one hand, yes, we are capable of great and wonderful things. We developed civilization and complex languages. We created architecture, literature, music and art. Science and technology have allowed us to cure disease, walk on the moon, and discover our universe from a comfy chair. It’s definitely worth noting that one of our earliest achievements was the invention of beer. (I’ll drink to that!)
It’s true, we have made some impressive advances over other species, but along the way it seems we also developed a superiority complex. This may explain our vainglorious endeavor to separate ourselves from nature. We stopped considering the effects our developments had on the earth and it’s other inhabitants as they were deemed insignificant to the human cause. In the name of progress, take no prisoners.
We perverted some of those great and wonderful advancements as well. With the advent of civilization came war and poverty. With science and technology came innovative weapons, ever advancing to deliver the maximum advantage and effect. Race against race, belief against belief, we are never without a “just cause” to go to war. The human casualties have been innumerous and our bloodlust insatiable.
We destroyed forests and ecosystems, dried up water sources, drilled and filled, dumped, pumped and paved. The modern age of humans has been an epoch of destruction, marked by our extensive industrialization of the planet and the wanton rape of every natural resource within it. We continue to attack the only viable home in our solar system like a parasitic organism, permanently injuring it with blatant disregard and letting the consequences fall to future generations.
It’s all too easy to shrug our shoulders and chalk our behavior up to human nature. That may be true in simple biological terms, but it’s a poor excuse. During our evolutionary journey, our brains eventually became capable of Meta self-awareness, abstract thought and the ability to form tools from nature itself, but evolution failed to provide us with the equivalent wisdom. We didn’t fully know what to do with what we had and, as a result, didn’t respect and value it. That’s because evolution is an adaptive process, not one that plans ahead or considers the outcomes. As self-conscious beings, we are capable of intelligent, rational thought, but we chose to disregard virtue in favor of progress.
Our misdeeds will eventually reach critical mass, a tipping point, provoking a devastating backlash that will have lasting repercussions on our species. It could potentially mean the end of our species. In fact, we’re already seeing it happen; the imminent signs that Earth, Gaia, is beginning to fight back. It may forever bear the permanent scars of our disharmonious time together, but nature always finds a way to balance things out – to settle the score.
It sounds darkly ominous, and there are some who would even argue that it’s hopeless, but I’m not without hope. It may be naïvely optimistic of me to think that we can turn the ship around and find the balance on our own before our species destroys itself, but I am nonetheless hopeful, and happily so. Otherwise, I might be inclined to view my fellow species with contempt, living a life of bitter misanthropic solitude. I’m not that guy.
There’s still room and time for hope and I believe this ability of ours isn’t limited to amplifying our rapacious human nature. It can also allow us to rise above our nature, to liberate ourselves, if we so choose. If we are consciously aware of the problem, then we can consciously work to resolve it. We still have a chance to use this fortuitous ability of ours to find harmony.
In the meantime, there is the wizened advice of Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Choose to make a difference, no matter how small it may seem in the grand scheme of things, because it may inspire someone and the effects will multiply exponentially.
Now, as you are looking into that mirror, consider what kind of person you are. Are you a self-conscious ape, limited by a slowly evolving brain in a hastily advancing human empire? Or do you see the potential, the capacity to think above and beyond the basic building blocks of our human mind?
I see the potential.
In response to Mirror, Mirror