What is the difference between consciousness and consciousness

How do awareness and self-awareness differ?

Questioner: Joachim Wolfram by email

Published: 01/03/2015

In philosophy, but also in the neurosciences, the great mystery of consciousness is mentioned more often. Self-confidence has also piqued the interest of brain research in recent years. But what exactly is the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness?

The answer from the editors is:

Answer from Thomas Metzinger, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Mainz:

Consciousness is simply the fact that experiences are there, it is the appearance of a world. Consciousness has different components, the three most important of which are: There is a uniform world model. This means that in the brain of an organism a picture of the world is created in which what is heard, seen and felt come together to experience a unified world. Second, there is a now, one experiences that there is time and that this world is now present. And finally, this model of the world is not experienced as a model, but as given directly and immediately, supposedly as reality itself. When these three components are given, a world appears to an animal or a person.

Self-awareness, on the other hand, is awareness with a very special content, the self. This, too, is a model that the brain generates, and it does it so well that most of the time we don't recognize it as a model. We identify with its content and consider ourselves to be this self. There are different levels of self-awareness, and researchers and philosophers argue about which is the lowest and most basic level. In any case, one experiences oneself as a self when certain conditions are met: when there is a limit between self and world; when this self is experienced localized in space and time and is also experienced as something that can trigger and control actions and, in principle, could also act differently - when one has the feeling of being able to independently start a chain of causes. Nevertheless, there is also a deepest sense of self below thinking, language, feelings and actions - the self-localization in a here and a now. In humans, the body that is always present is the primary source from which the sense of self arises.

Usually awareness goes hand in hand with self-awareness in humans. But I am convinced that there is awareness even without self-awareness. We cannot quite imagine it, because the very attempt to imagine it always creates a sense of self. Because the attempt is already a spiritual act. It's like opening the fridge over and over to see if the light has gone out. But you can also imagine consciousness without colors, for example in color-blind people. Or one can imagine a consciousness without thoughts, for example in animals that have feelings and perceptions but cannot think in terms.

In addition, the mystics of all times and traditions report of a conscious experience without a sense of self. We know of similar reports from people who are seriously mentally ill or have taken psychoactive substances.

The search for the neural basis of consciousness and self-awareness in the brain is in full swing. In terms of consciousness, there are indications that those activity patterns in the brain that are very extensive in space and time become conscious. When you get a click in your ear that you consciously perceive, the activation pattern in the brain spreads very far. If you do the same thing under anesthesia, the activation remains very localized to the auditory cortex. The temporoparietal junction is a hot candidate for self-confidence. Here, many body perceptions from the various senses are brought together and embedded in a spatial frame of reference: My sensations are here with me, and not in the table over there. However, it would not be serious to claim that there are already reliable results here. We just don't know a lot yet.

Answer recorded by Manuela Lenzen