You cannot become a self by yourself – that is, in isolation from others. This contradicts Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage,” which essentially maintained that human nature is innate and can develop – indeed, even flourish – apart from human society, especially “civilized” society. Studies of so-called “feral” children found that those raised from an early age by wild dogs, wolves or monkeys simply patterned themselves after the animals in their pack, running around on all fours and exhibiting little sign of higher intelligence. Once introduced to human society, they never learned language beyond a few rudimentary words and showed scant signs of self-awareness. Similarly, autism, which was once thought to be an extreme form of self-centeredness, may be more nearly the opposite. Children with this neurological impairment may find it difficulty or impossible to bond with others and may never develop a normal sense of self. It appears that what we think of as “self” and “other” are two sides of the same coin.
More than a century ago the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley developed a “looking glass” theory of self that suggested our identity is essentially a social construct derived from those around us. However, we do not develop self-awareness simply by copying others; rather, we interpret how we imagine we are perceived by them. As Cooley expressed it, "I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am." The animating principle behind this house of mirrors is something that later came to be called theory of mind. Properly speaking, theory of mind is not a theory about the mind or how it works. The term refers to our ability to read the mental states of others based on our own thoughts and feelings – or is it the other way around? Theory of mind is essential to recognizing that other people have minds of their own, although not so dissimilar from ours that we are unable to empathize with them. Self-awareness develops hand-in-hand with other-awareness.
Recent work by the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran suggests that the symbiotic relationship between self and other may operate at the cellular level. Researchers had found that a certain set of neurons in primates would fire either when a monkey performed a certain action itself or when he saw another animal perform the same action. Ramachandran believes these “mirror” neurons play a significant role in a primate’s ability to predict the behavior of others – a crucial element in the survival of highly social species like moneys (or humans). According to Ramachandran, this “monkey-see-monkey-do” mechanism may have evolved first to read the behavior of others and only then turned inward, giving rise to self-awareness in humans. Conversely, the relative lack of “mirror” neurons in autistic children may help to explain why they have difficulty empathizing with others or acquiring a firm sense of self.
The development of self-awareness is seen by many as the culmination of human evolution; others regard it as the mere prelude to a spiritual transformation that, to some extent, involves reversing the process. To find God, adepts say, you need to transcend the self. In contrast to developing self-awareness, you can only transcend the self by yourself – that is, in isolation from others. Every spiritual tradition has developed a path of inner transformation that is practiced in solitude. In the Western tradition, the Desert Fathers led the way, monks and ascetics who lived alone or in small communities in the deserts of Egypt and Syria starting in the late third century. They came seeking God, but in some cases, as with Jesus and St. Anthony, they first had to confront demons within themselves. To achieve transcendence, one must deconstruct the social construct that is the self – not to destroy it but to make it an empty vessel suitable for higher use.
One of the chief fruits of solitude is the discovery that we are not alone. As long as we think we are alone, we are still buying into the illusion of a separate self. For, just as the self did not develop by itself, neither does it exist by itself. We exist in relation to the God who made us. Once again we find ourselves in a house of mirrors. Only this time when we hold up the looking glass, we don’t see ourselves as we think others see us. We see the God in whose image we are made. We have discovered that we two are opposite sides of the same coin.
V.S. Ramachandran, “The Neurology of Self-Awareness,” The Edge (January 8, 2007)