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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Death and the Birth of Self-Awareness

In this and my next few blog installments I will progressively explore my ongoing interest in death awareness, as it affects or influences my own perceptions and experiences as well as the perceptions and experiences of humans, in general. I will begin with the observation that human beings possess cognitive capacities that, as far as we know, are unparalleled by any other species. We can reflect on past experiences and ponder possible future events. We are able to reason and communicate using language. We are able to self-reflect, to consider, analyze and question our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors, all of which has given us an enormous survival advantage. Following is a bit of a cost/benefit analysis . . . a look at the advantages and consequences of being human.

Death and the Birth of Self-Awareness

Humans are born into a state of extreme helplessness and dependence. In fact, we are so immature at birth we can’t lift our heads or roll over. Not only are humans physically weak in the early stages of life, but we are also mentally immature. The brain continues to develop for an extended time after birth. Comparing a human infant’s brain with that of chimpanzees, the chimp’s brain is born with about 70% of its cranial capacity already in place. It takes roughly 3 years after birth for the human brain to reach the same capacity.

This slow development allows the human infant’s brain and nervous system to develop in the context of their holding environment, which leads to an increased capacity for adaptation through learning experiences (nurture) as opposed to hard-wired instincts (nature). The good news . . . this results in a higher degree of behavioral flexibility. The challenge . . . this means that for many years after birth, the human child must grapple with the development of its mental capabilities while being totally helpless, dependent, and vulnerable to the environment within which it is developing.

Self-consciousness, or the awareness that we are living beings in a world of relationships to others is also dawning during these early developmental stages. Self-awareness is a tremendous intellectual advantage that under ideal developmental circumstances gives humans unparalleled flexibility when responding to their environment. Self-awareness allows us to step back from a new or unusual experience and delay behaviors long enough to ponder and compare to past experiences, anticipate future consequences, and plan accordingly, a phenomenon called self-regulation.

The ability to regulate one’s behavior, when combined with other cognitive abilities such as symbolic reasoning, makes it possible for humans to conceive of that which does not yet exist and then transform their imagination into reality. In this sense, human beings are truly creative; other animals adapt to the natural world as it is encountered, whereas humans can change the natural world to suite their particular needs and desires. Clearly, self-awareness, which makes possible complex visions, dreams, desires and goals, has enabled humans to conceive and devise the means to survive in a wide range of uncertain environments.

Despite the adaptive benefits of being able to ponder our existence, being self-aware, when combined with the ability to anticipate future events, is also highly problematic because it makes us aware that we are, at base, flesh-and-blood animals that will eventually decay and die. Most animals experience fear when they are faced with an imminent threat. However, because humans can anticipate all kinds of future threats, self-awareness which is the equivalent of death-awareness, creates the potential for ever-present anxiety.

When this existential fear or anxiety is experienced unchecked, it can undermine many of the adaptive benefits of self-awareness, namely, behavioral flexibility and self-regulation. In other words, humans could be so overwhelmed by anxiety that they might be unable to perform goal-oriented or process-outcome driven activities. Thus, in order to preserve a viable, sustainable form of self-consciousness, unhindered by self-awareness or mortality awareness, humans evolved cultural constructs and belief systems that give people ways of earning self-esteem.

In the next blog installment I’ll look at how our self-esteem systems have developed as a strategy for mitigating death anxiety.

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