Self-awareness in animals and men
Recognising oneself in a mirror is a typical feature of self-awareness. Higher mammals like humans, great apes, whales and elephants possess this quality to varying degrees. In 2012, some scientist researching at Max Planck Institute in Germany have discovered brain cells in monkeys that may be linked to self-awareness in humans.
The anterior insular cortex is a small brain region that plays a crucial role in human self-awareness and in some neuropsychiatric disorders. A unique cell type — called the von Economo neuron (VEN) — is located there. For a long time, the VEN was assumed to be unique to humans, great apes, whales and elephants. Professor Henry Evrard, neuroanatomist at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, discovered that the VEN occurs also in the insula of macaque monkeys. The morphology, size and distribution of the macaque monkey VEN suggest that it is at least “a primal anatomical homolog of the human VEN.” This finding offers new and much-needed opportunities to examine in detail the connections and functions of a cell and brain region that could play a key role in human self-awareness and in mental disorders like autism and dementia.
The insular cortex is a hidden cortical region folded and tucked away deep in the brain — an island within the cortex. Within the past decade, it is understood that the insula plays a key role in diverse functions usually linked to our internal bodily states, to our emotions, to our self-awareness and to our social interactions. In particular, the very anterior part of the insula is where humans consciously sense subjective emotions, such as love, hate, resentment, self-confidence or embarrassment. In relation to these feelings, the anterior insula is also involved in various psychopathologies. Damage caused to the insula leads to apathy, and to the inability to tell what feelings we, or our partner experience. These inabilities and changes of the insula are also encountered in autism and other neuropsychiatric disorders like dementia. The discovery of VENs in macaque monkeys provide “compelling evidence that monkeys possess at least a primitive form of the human VEN although they do not have the ability to recognise themselves in a mirror,” according to Prof Evrard.
According to him, the VEN phylogeny needs to be reexamined. The very much-needed analysis of the connections and physiology of these specific neurons is now both possible and desirable. Knowing the functions of the VEN and its connections to other regions of the brain in monkeys could give us clues on the evolution of the anatomical substrate of self-awareness in humans and may help us in better understanding serious neuropsychiatric disabilities including autism, or even addictions such as to drugs or smoking.
If the above finding is true, it gives hope for humans to improve our own self-awareness. If awareness is a feature found also in advanced animals, there is a good chance that we can improve upon it. Thorough neurological studies, coupled with meditation techniques, we may be able to widen our own self-awareness.
Since self-awareness is the basis for our own identity, compassion and spirituality, widening our self-awareness can make of us better and nobler human beings. Then we become more compassionate, with a better ability to embrace the rest of the world, including our own enemies. That will make us more spiritual, and truly open to the others as well as the divine. Our human survival depends on such openness.
(The writer is a professor of science and religion)
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