Conscious Use Of Self Definition Essay

The Philosophy of Self-Portraiture in Contemporary Art


Philosophy addresses the non-essential, but intriguing question of – “why?” 
This essay addresses various reasons why artists may choose to use self-portraiture in their art, particularly in the art of contemporary photography. 

Necessity and Control – The Practical Aspects

Often we as emerging artists begin our practice with minimal resources at our disposal.  We resort to using whatever materials available, through whatever means possible.  Without the financial resources to hire professional actors or models to pose as subjects for our works, artists often rely on themselves or on the assistance of friends to avoid complications with model release forms and financial compensation.  If the work that we want to create requires the human figure or face, nothing could be more accessible than our own bodies.  Artists will quickly find that the model who is most reliable, committed, willing to push themselves to great lengths, anxious to experiment, and to most easily grasp the concept of the artist’s direction and express their personal aesthetic, is themselves.  After all, no one can articulate your thoughts better than you can.  The primacy of thought leaves no chance of misinterpretation.

There is an essential element of “control” in the art of self-portraiture.  We control what details are included in the final works and what details are excluded.  For a moment, we seize control of time and space.  We control the decisive moment that is captured and the setting in which we are contained.  The artist becomes director in the clip in which they are the lead actor.  The self-portrait can become a major exercise in independent production.  Particularly in the case of photography, the artist’s roles may include that of location scout, researcher, set designer, props manager, lighting designer, director of photography, special effects artist, aesthetician, wardrobe manager, hairstylist, makeup artist, actor, director, camera operator, digital editor, and Photoshop expert.  As the artist advances in the stages of their career, some of these roles may be delegated to assistants, but the original modous operandi generally remains the same.  The resulting work is a pure, independent expression of the artist’s vision.  

Consider the elaborate works by Cindy Sherman or Rodney Graham, or even my own similarly independent productions.  However, even in the opposite style of self-portraiture, within the most candid and spontaneous works, there is also a conscious element of control.

Consciousness vs. Self-Consciousness

The concept of self-portraiture is inherently linked to the concept of self-consciousness.  And, the concept of portraiture, if not even art itself, is linked to consciousness.  Art making can never truly be an “automatiste” process.  There is always a conscious element of involvement.  Lets suppose we were to consider robots that can paint.  Alexander McQueen in his spring/summer 1999 runway show used just such robots.  Can an unconscious entity create art?  Though the robots themselves may not be conscious of painting, the sheer observation of painting (by others) and defining it as such, makes it so.  But, in order to perform the act of painting, the robots have to be programmed to perform the actions required of painting. The consciousness therefore lies in the programmer rendering the robots seemingly automatic actions possible. 

Even the use of randomness in the creative process reflects a conscious decision to use randomness as criteria for the work.  Every stroke of a paintbrush, or click of the shutter at any particular time and place reflects a conscious decision.  Art is the reflective result of consciousness. The fact that humans make art is one of the few traits that set us apart from most other species.

Art making has become one of the standards for which we test for consciousness.  While scientists have worked with primates testing for the ability to create art, they have found that what they produce are mere pictorial representations at best.  So how are we any different?  While most of us have seen videos of cats or chimps that paint, it is rare that they will ever produce a self-portrait.  However, at an elephant park in Thailand elephants have been seen by many and recorded painting portraits of elephants.  Though we cannot be sure if their intent is to paint a portrait of themselves or of some other elephant, the question of the existence of self-awareness among other species has been raised through this portrait vs. self-portrait debate.  All sentient beings are conscious, but not all sentient beings are self-conscious, a standard measure of advanced intelligence. 

Identity Issues and Autobiography

If art making always involves conscious decision-making and self-portraiture reflects self-consciousness, then what is the message or meaning of self-portraiture?  Why do certain artists decide to create self-interpretations or visual archives of their presence and decidedly so in a particular time and space?  The question answers itself.  The self-portrait declares “I exist”. 

The notion of a portrait is intrinsically linked to that of identity.  Through self-portraiture, we become representational figures in our works, a first-person “poster child” for whatever identities our image carries with it.  Contemporary art draws largely on the signifiers of identity as subject for discussion.  Artists, in their self-awareness utilize their signifiers, whether intimate and personal, specific to gender, race, class, culture, sexual orientation or transfiguration, for intellectual discourse.  The complexities of the definition of self are played out on the metaphorical and literal canvas. 

Whether abstract, subtle, or intimately detailed, the self-portrait is inherently autobiographical.  Many artists experiment with negating the self through hiding or masquerading within their works.  In light of this practice, I am reminded of the philosophical thought experiments where one considers whether s/he would still be herself if s/he received a heart transplant.  While most of us would still think that we are ourselves after a heart transplant, the same cannot be said if we were to consider a similar question, but with a brain transplant.  Furthermore, the performance works of French artist ORLAN, in which she undergoes cosmetic surgeries, repeatedly altering her facial construction, also questions the locus on which we place self-identity.  No matter how much we attempt to distort or abstract our appearance, we are trapped within our selves as our identity lies not in any one physical feature or set of characteristics, but in the conscious entity behind these.  Ultimately, any conscious representation of the self, disguised or not, can be classified as a self-portrait.

Performance and Documentation

Although the use of oneself in contemporary visual art is not that common of a practice, in other arts forms it is so commonplace that we have failed to perceive it as such.  It has become an example in which self-portraiture hides in plain sight.  I am referring to the performing arts.  Think of your favourite musician, whether a pop-singer, guitar player, or operatic soprano.  Consider a dancer, dance troupe or your favourite film actors.  Each of these artists appear in their own art.  They tell stories with their bodies and voices through the art of performance. 

Often self-portraits in contemporary photography are a documentation of a performance whose sole audience is the camera.  Drawing upon the aforementioned “production-like” quality of self-portraiture, specifically photographic, these images take the form of “film stills”.  Unlike a true still from a feature-like film however, the performance and documentation’s sole purpose is the creation of the still image as a final work.  Any narrative that surrounds the image is left to the realm of the imagination, evoked by a myriad of visual signifiers chosen by the self-portrait artist.  This genre of self-portraiture was popularized by the series of the same name “Film Stills” by Cindy Sherman in the late 70’s.  The function of the staged photographic film still may be traced back as early as Henry Peach Robinson’s “Fading Away” from 1858.  Photographic self-portraits can be traced back even earlier than that (circa 1839 by Robert Cornelius) but no wonder with the influence that painting has had on the art of photography.  Pictorialism is of course the art of creating an image, rather than recording it and has re-gained popularity in photography since Sherman’s “Film Stills”.

Truth or Fantasy?

Documentation has become an essential element in almost any art form.  In a photographic self-portrait, documentation becomes an art unto itself.  Photography holds a privileged position in art with its unique ability to mirror reality with such accurate and detailed precision.  However, artists who are critical of photography’s inherently documentary like capabilities use the medium to question our perceptions of reality.  Its realistic nature is often exploited by elaborate fictions that are created within the photograph, thereby critiquing it’s shallow stigma of photography being a mere recording device. 

But are these ruses simply critiquing the medium and challenging our perceptions of reality?  How does this relate when combined with self-portraiture?  The photograph then becomes a stage on which to enact our stories.  Often like reality, there is no singular truth, and what one perceives as fiction may also contain certain elements of truth, albeit often hidden.  Renowned actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski noted, “Characterization is the mask that hides the actor-individual.  Protected by it he can lay bare his soul down to the last intimate detail.” 
The popularity with artists masquerading in self-portraiture may be attributed to our inability to be content playing only one role in art, and in life.  As complex being with rich, inner lives, one role is hardly satisfying.  We are not easily defined by a single identity.  The self-portrait enables us to create a realm where we can express our past-selves, repressed selves, desires, maladies of the mind, intellectual interests or to fantasize about being someone altogether different than ourselves.  The masqueraded self-portrait can be an escape into a world where we have full creative control – not surprising in a reality where we can often feel that we have little control over.  We crave the world where we are free to be anyone that we chose to be. 

Let’s consider the self-portraiture of Vancouver artist Rodney Graham.  He has appeared in his own works as a myriad of characters, from Marlboro Man, bohemian, aging punk rocker, painter, urban dandy, anti-hero, convict/law-breaker, poet, chef, lighthouse keeper, Hitchcock antagonist, deserted islander, drug user, painter and more.  Though these self-portraits may be disguised as masquerading, any one that knows even a bit about the real Rodney Graham, can see elements of truth in these representations.  These self-portraits contain a fascinating irony with their self-deprecating humour as Graham reveals many of his semi-incomplete dreams to his viewers through his art. 

The self-portrait could be likened to a literary work written in the first-person.  It is only natural to tell our experiences in the first-person, as observed in our typical speech pattern.  The self-portrait artist goes beyond this, creating a visual literary work where he or she is the protagonist or antagonist.  And just as one cannot write the great American novel without first living it, it follows that one cannot produce a great work of art without first experiencing the life to reflect it. 

Using their personal lives as subject matter for their art, some artists prefer to work with straight photography, from a very direct first-person experience.  Their blatantly honest images simultaneously demand and defy us to look at them.  The capacity of photography to tell the truth is used as a diary, archiving particular moments in time for means of reflection.  Another threshold is crossed through this photographic method – the threshold between private and public.  The very specificity of diaristic self-portraits paints a vivid picture, casting light on issues that are often kept in the dark.  The self-portraits of Nan Goldin come to mind, illuminating the life of her and her friends, where drug use, AIDs and domestic abuse and violence were typical.  This genre of self-portraiture can be both an enlightening and a cathartic experience.  The veil of denial is lifted concurrently with the opening of the shutter. 

Extension of Self and Immortality

Photography has an ability like no other, to capture a realistic rendering of an individual.  So much so, that when we share a photograph, we often say, “This is (insert name here)”.  The photograph is a 2D clone of that individual.  When taken to the level of contemporary art, we might say “Marina Abramovic is in the MoMA” which could mean either she, the living, breathing artist is in the gallery, or we could mean her work.  Further yet, we could mean a portrait or self-portrait of her.  Our art, whether our likeness is presented within it or not, is an extension of ourselves.  If successfully planted into the fabric of history, this extension of self will surpass our physical existence.  Just as many attempt to extend their existence into the future through having a family of future generations that carry on both their DNA along with values and traditions, we as artists aim to extend our mental selves into the future, injecting our art works with our own ideologies and mental selves.  This theory could be ascribed to any role of creative producer – architect, philosopher, composer, painter, etc.

The previously mentioned Marina Abramovic, known mostly as a performance artist, was chosen for mention because of the proximity of performance art to self-portraiture.  Logically, self-portraiture is therefore closely linked to performance, and therefore to the body.  And what is the body if not a living organism prone to birth, growth, entropy and eventually – death?  The self-portrait acts simultaneously as a memento mori, and as a vehicle for immortality. Most of us expect to live no longer than 100 years of age.  Given that even the earliest photographs are still in existence, albeit in a fragile state, and given the advances and assurance of photographic technologies archival standards today, we can safely assume that a photograph will exist far beyond our own lifespan.  For the artist who is both knowledgeable in the medium of photography and is self-aware, self-portraiture is a conscious exercise in existentialism. 

As a conscious act, we document our inner and outer selves, meticulously curating the facets of our existence, both the painful and the triumphant, that we wish to leave behind in the world.  And from these archives we hope that others can learn – to look inside themselves, to reconsider their stereotypes of those around them, to remind ourselves of the brevity of youth, beauty and life itself, to challenge previous modes of perceptions of reality, and to question where in fact our very identity lies and how it is constructed.  And, like reality, there is no sole explanation for why artists create self-portraiture; there are many truths.  With the camera we hold a mirror up to the world in the hopes that each viewer will, as Aristotle says “Know Thyself”. 

Not only is the empress wearing clothes, but she is wearing many layers of them.  (Holly Marie Armishaw)

"Symptom Six" 2008, by Holly Marie Armishaw
Shalom Harlow for Alexander McQueen, Spring/Summer '99 Runway show "No. 13"
Maetang Elephant Park, Maeteng, Chiang Mai, Thailand, photographer unknown
Still from Orlan's 7th Surgical Performance "Omnipresence", 1993
"Untitled #552" by Cindy Sherman, 2012
"Fading Away" by Henry Peach Robinson, 1858
"Lucid Dreaming" by Holly Marie Armishaw, 2008
"Old Punk on Pay Phone" by Rodney Graham, 2012
"Marie Antoinette - Upon Learning of her First Born Son's Death" by Holly Marie Armishaw, 2011
"Heart-Shpaed Bruise" by Nan Goldin, 1980
"Nude With Skeleton" performance by Marina Abramovic, 2002
Detail from "Death of Self" by holly Marie Armishaw, 2008

Not to be confused with Self-concept, Self-consciousness, Self-perception, or Self image.

Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals.[1] It is not to be confused with consciousness in the sense of qualia. While consciousness is being aware of one's environment and body and lifestyle, self-awareness is the recognition of that awareness.[2]

Neurobiological basis[edit]


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There are questions regarding what part of the brain allows us to be self-aware and how we are biologically programmed to be self-aware. V.S. Ramachandran has speculated that mirror neurons may provide the neurological basis of human self-awareness.[3] In an essay written for the Edge Foundation in 2009, Ramachandran gave the following explanation of his theory: "... I also speculated that these neurons can not only help simulate other people's behavior but can be turned 'inward'—as it were—to create second-order representations or meta-representations of your own earlier brain processes. This could be the neural basis of introspection, and of the reciprocity of self awareness and other awareness. There is obviously a chicken-or-egg question here as to which evolved first, but... The main point is that the two co-evolved, mutually enriching each other to create the mature representation of self that characterizes modern humans."[4]


See also: Animal consciousness and Mirror test

Studies have been done mainly on primates to test if self-awareness is present. Apes, monkeys, elephants, and dolphins have been studied most frequently. The most relevant studies to this day that represent self-awareness in animals have been done on chimpanzees, dolphins, and magpies. Self-awareness in animals is tested through mirror self recognition. Animals who show mirror self recognition go through four stages 1) social response, 2) physical mirror inspection, 3) repetitive mirror testing behavior, and 4) the mark test; which involves the animals spontaneously touching a mark on their body which would have been difficult to see without the mirror.[5]

The ‘Red Spot Technique’ created and experimented by Gordon Gallup[6] studies self-awareness in animals (primates). Toivanen says on a study done on perceptual self-awareness, "The attribution of self-perception to animals is based on a distinction between the experiential awareness of the soul and the intellectual understanding of its essence, a distinction postulated."[7] In this technique, a red odorless spot is placed on an anesthetized primate's forehead. The spot is placed on the forehead so that it can only be seen through a mirror. Once the individual awakens, independent movements toward the spot after seeing their reflection in a mirror are observed. During the Red Spot Technique, after looking in the mirror, chimpanzees used their fingers to touch the red dot that was on their forehead and, after touching the red dot they would even smell their fingertips.[8] "Animals that can recognize themselves in mirrors can conceive of themselves," says Gallup. Another prime example are elephants. Three elephants were exposed to large mirrors where experimenters studied the reaction when the elephants saw their reflection. These elephants were given the "litmus mark test" in order to see whether they were aware of what they were looking at. This visible mark was applied on the elephants and the researchers reported a large progress with self-awareness. The elephants shared this success rate with other animals such as monkeys and dolphins.[9]

Chimpanzees and other apes – species which have been studied extensively – compare the most to humans with the most convincing findings and straightforward evidence in the relativity of self-awareness in animals so far.[10] Dolphins were put to a similar test and achieved the same results. Diana Reiss, a psycho-biologist at the New York Aquarium discovered that bottlenose dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors.[11]

Researchers also used the mark test or mirror test [12] to study the magpie's self-awareness. As a majority of birds are blind below the beak, Prior and colleagues[10] marked the birds’ neck with three different colors: red, yellow and a black imitation, as magpies are originally black. When placed in front of a mirror, the birds with the red and yellow spots began scratching at their necks, signaling the understanding of something different being on their bodies. During one trial with a mirror and a mark, three out of the five magpies showed a minimum of one example of self-directed behavior. The magpies explored the mirror by moving toward it and looking behind it. One of the magpies, Harvey, during several trials would pick up objects, pose, do some wing-flapping, all in front of the mirror with the objects in his beak. This represents a sense of self-awareness; knowing what is going on within himself and in the present. The authors suggest that self-recognition in birds and mammals may be a case of convergent evolution, where similar evolutionary pressures result in similar behaviors or traits, although they arrive at them via different routes.[13]

A few slight occurrences of behavior towards the magpie's own body happened in the trial with the black mark and the mirror. It is assumed in this study[10] that the black mark may have been slightly visible on the black feathers. Prior and Colleagues,[10] stated "This is an indirect support for the interpretation that the behavior towards the mark region was elicited by seeing the own body in the mirror in conjunction with an unusual spot on the body."

The behaviors of the magpies clearly contrasted with no mirror present. In the no-mirror trials, a non-reflective gray plate of the same size and in the same position as the mirror was swapped in. There were not any mark directed self-behaviors when the mark was present, in color, or in black.[10] Prior and Colleagues'[10] data quantitatively matches the findings in chimpanzees. In summary of the mark test,[10] the results show that magpies understand that a mirror image represents their own body; magpies show to have self-awareness.

A new study, however, revolutionizes the idea of self-awareness in animals and suggests a new ethological approach, which may shed light on different ways of checking for cognition, and reopens the debate of ethologists (and philosophers) on consciousness. The research conducted by Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, associate professor at Tomsk State University in Russia and published in 2016 in the journal Ethology, Ecology and Evolution,[14] with the title borrowed from the novel by Lewis Carroll “Self-consciousness: beyond the looking-glass and what dogs found there“, could change the way some experiments on animal behaviour are validated.

“I believe – said prof. Cazzolla Gatti – that, being dogs much less sensitive to visual stimuli with respect to what, for example, humans and many apes are, it is likely that their and other animals failure in the mirror test is mainly due to sensory modality chosen by the investigator to test the self-awareness and not, necessarily, due to the absence of this latter in some animal species”.[15]

The study shows that the “sniff test of self-recognition (STSR)[16]”, as defined by the Italian scientist in his study, even when applied to multiple individuals living in groups and with different ages and sexes, provides significant evidences of self-awareness in dogs, and can play a crucial role in showing that this capacity is not a specific feature of only great apes, humans and a few other animals, but it depends on the way in which researchers try to verify it.

Attempts to verify this idea have been made before, but most of them were only observational, lacked empirical evidences or had been carried out only with a single individual and not repeated systematically with other dogs of different sex and age (for example the ethologist Marc Bekoff in 2001 used a "yellow snow test[17]" to measure how long his dog was sniffing his scent of urine and those of the other dogs in the area). Therefore, the final test of self-recognition in a species phylogenetically distant from apes (thus with different sensory modalities and communication behaviour) as the dog, was not obtained.

The innovative approach to test the self-awareness with a smell test "highlights the need to shift the paradigm of the anthropocentric idea of consciousness to a species-specific perspective[18]" - said Roberto Cazzolla Gatti - "We would never expect that a mole or a bat can recognize theirselves in a mirror, but now we have strong empirical evidences to suggest that if species other than primates are tested on chemical or auditory perception base we could get really unexpected results”.[18]

Cooperation and evolutionary problems[edit]

Just as Swiss cleaning robots perform behaviors that effectively cleans a room without being aware of it or having any program to detect debris, an organism can be effectively altruistic without being self-aware, aware of any distinction between egoism and altruism, or aware of qualia in others. This by simple reactions to specific situations which happens to benefit other individuals in the organism's natural environment. If self-awareness led to a necessity of an emotional empathy mechanism for altruism and egoism being default in its absence, that would have precluded evolution from a state without self-awareness to a self-aware state in all social animals. The ability of the theory of evolution to explain self-awareness can be rescued by abandoning the hypothesis of self-awareness being a basis for cruelty.[19][20]


Self-awareness has been called "arguably the most fundamental issue in psychology, from both a developmental and an evolutionary perspective."[21]

Self-awareness theory, developed by Duval and Wicklund in their 1972 landmark book A theory of objective self awareness, states that when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. This elicits a state of objective self-awareness. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.[22] However self-awareness is not to be confused with self-consciousness.[23] Various emotional states are intensified by self-awareness. However, some people may seek to increase their self-awareness through these outlets. People are more likely to align their behavior with their standards when made self-aware. People will be negatively affected if they don't live up to their personal standards. Various environmental cues and situations induce awareness of the self, such as mirrors, an audience, or being videotaped or recorded. These cues also increase accuracy of personal memory.[24] In one of Demetriou's neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development, self-awareness develops systematically from birth through the life span and it is a major factor for the development of general inferential processes.[25] Moreover, a series of recent studies showed that self-awareness about cognitive processes participates in general intelligence on a par with processing efficiency functions, such as working memory, processing speed, and reasoning.[26]Albert Bandura's theory of self-efficacy builds on our varying degrees of self-awareness. It is "the belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations." A person's belief in their ability to succeed sets the stage to how they think, behave and feel. Someone with a strong self-efficacy, for example, views challenges as mere tasks that must be overcome, and are not easily discouraged by setbacks. They are aware of their flaws and abilities and choose to utilize these qualities to the best of their ability. Someone with a weak sense of self-efficacy evades challenges and quickly feels discouraged by setbacks. They may not be aware of these negative reactions, and therefore do not always change their attitude. This concept is central to Bandura's social cognitive theory, "which emphasizes the role of observational learning, social experience, and reciprocal determinism in the development of personality."[27]

Developmental stages[edit]

Individuals become conscious of themselves through the development of self-awareness.[21] This particular type of self-development pertains to becoming conscious of one's own body and mental state of mind including thoughts, actions, ideas, feelings and interactions with others.[28] "Self-awareness does not occur suddenly through one particular behavior: it develops gradually through a succession of different behaviors all of which relate to the self."[29] The monitoring of one's mental states is called metacognition and it is considered to be an indicator that there is some concept of the self.[30] It is developed through an early sense of non-self components using sensory and memory sources. In developing self–awareness through self-exploration and social experiences one can broaden his social world and become more familiar with the self.

According to Emory University's Philippe Rochat, there are five levels of self-awareness which unfold in early development and six potential prospects ranging from "Level 0" (having no self-awareness) advancing complexity to "Level 5" (explicit self-awareness).[21]

  • Level 0: Confusion. At this level the individual has a degree of zero self-awareness. This person is unaware of any mirror reflection or the mirror itself. They perceive the mirror as an extension of their environment. Level 0 can also be displayed when an adult frightens himself in a mirror mistaking his own reflection as another person just for a second.
  • Level 1: Differentiation. The individual realizes the mirror is able to reflect things. They see that what is in the mirror is different from what is surrounding them. At this level they can differentiate between their own movement in the mirror and the movement of the surrounding environment.
  • Level 2: Situation. At this point an individual can link the movements on the mirror to what is perceived within their own body. This is the first hint of self-exploration on a projected surface where what is visualized on the mirror is special to the self.
  • Level 3: Identification. This stage is characterized by the new ability to identify self: an individual can now see that what's in the mirror is not another person but actually him/herself. It is seen when a child, instead of referring to the mirror while referring to him/herself, refers to him/herself while looking in the mirror.
  • Level 4: Permanence. Once an individual reaches this level they can identify the self beyond the present mirror imagery. They are able to identify the self in previous pictures looking different or younger. A "permanent self" is now experienced.
  • Level 5: Self-consciousness or "meta" self-awareness. At this level not only is the self seen from a first person view but its realized that it's also seen from a third person's view. They begin to understand they can be in the mind of others. For instance, how they are seen from a public standpoint.[21]

Infancy and early childhood[edit]

By the time an average toddler reaches 18 months they will discover themselves and recognize their own reflection in the mirror. By the age of 24 months the toddler will observe and relate their own actions to those actions of other people and the surrounding environment.[31] There are multiple experiments that show a child's self-awareness. In what has come to be known as The Shopping Cart Task, "Children were asked to push a shopping cart to their mothers but in attempting to do so they had to step on the mat and in consequence, their body weight prevented the cart from moving".[32]

Around school age a child's awareness of personal memory transitions into a sense of one's own self. At this stage, a child begins to develop interests along with likes and dislikes. This transition enables the awareness of an individual's past, present, and future to grow as conscious experiences are remembered more often.[31]

As a child's self-awareness increases they tend to separate and become their own person. Their cognitive and social development allows "the taking of another's perspective and the accepting of inconsistencies."[33] By adolescence, a coherent and integrated self-perception normally emerges. This very personal emerging perspective continues to direct and advance an individual's self-awareness throughout their adult life.


One becomes conscious of their emotions during adolescence. Most children are aware of emotions such as shame, guilt, pride and embarrassment by the age of two, but do not fully understand how those emotions affect their life.[34] By age 13, children become more in touch with these emotions and begin to apply them to their own lives. A study entitled "The Construction of the Self" found that many adolescents display happiness and self-confidence around friends, but hopelessness and anger around parents due to the fear of being a disappointment. Teenagers were also shown to feel intelligent and creative around teachers, and shy, uncomfortable and nervous around people they were not familiar with.[35]


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An early philosophical discussion of self-awareness is that of John Locke. Locke was apparently influenced by René Descartes' statement normally translated 'I think, therefore I am' (Cogito ergo sum). In chapter XXVII "On Identity and Diversity" of Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) he conceptualized consciousness as the repeated self-identification of oneself through which moral responsibility could be attributed to the subject—and therefore punishment and guiltiness justified, as critics such as Nietzsche would point out, affirming "...the psychology of conscience is not 'the voice of God in man'; it is the instinct of cruelty ... expressed, for the first time, as one of the oldest and most indispensable elements in the foundation of culture."[36][37][38] John Locke does not use the terms self-awareness or self-consciousness though.[39]

According to Locke, personal identity (the self) "depends on consciousness, not on substance.[40] We are the same person to the extent that we are conscious of our past and future thoughts and actions in the same way as we are conscious of our present thoughts and actions. If consciousness is this "thought" which doubles all thoughts, then personal identity is only founded on the repeated act of consciousness: "This may show us wherein personal identity consists: not in the identity of substance, but ... in the identity of consciousness."[40] For example, one may claim to be a reincarnation of Plato, therefore having the same soul. However, one would be the same person as Plato only if one had the same consciousness of Plato's thoughts and actions that he himself did. Therefore, self-identity is not based on the soul. One soul may have various personalities.

Locke argues that self-identity is not founded either on the body or the substance, as the substance may change while the person remains the same. "Animal identity is preserved in identity of life, and not of substance", as the body of the animal grows and changes during its life.[40] describes a case of a prince and a cobbler in which the soul of the prince is transferred to the body of the cobbler and vice versa. The prince still views himself as a prince, though he no longer looks like one. This border-case leads to the problematic thought that since personal identity is based on consciousness, and that only oneself can be aware of his consciousness, exterior human judges may never know if they really are judging—and punishing—the same person, or simply the same body. Locke argues that one may be judged for the actions of one's body rather than one's soul, and only God knows how to correctly judge a man's actions. Men also are only responsible for the acts of which they are conscious. This forms the basis of the insanity defense which argues that one cannot be held accountable for acts in which they were unconsciously irrational, or mentally ill[41]— In reference to man's personality, Locke claims that "whatever past actions it cannot reconcile or appropriate to that present self by consciousness, it can be no more concerned in it than if they had never been done: and to receive pleasure or pain, i.e. reward or punishment, on the account of any such action, is all one as to be made happy or miserable in its first being, without any demerit at all."[42]


The medical term for not being aware of one's deficits is anosognosia, or more commonly known as a lack of insight. Having a lack of awareness raises the risks of treatment and service nonadherence.[43] Individuals who deny having an illness may be against seeking professional help because they are convinced that nothing is wrong with them. Disorders of self-awareness frequently follow frontal lobe damage.[44] There are two common methods used to measure how severe an individual's lack of self-awareness is. The Patient Competency Rating Scale (PCRS) evaluates self-awareness in patients who have endured a traumatic brain injury.[45] PCRS is a 30-item self-report instrument which asks the subject to use a 5-point Likert scale to rate his or her degree of difficulty in a variety of tasks and functions. Independently, relatives or significant others who know the patient well are also asked to rate the patient on each of the same behavioral items. The difference between the relatives’ and patient's perceptions is considered an indirect measure of impaired self-awareness. The limitations of this experiment rest on the answers of the relatives. Results of their answers can lead to a bias. This limitation prompted a second method of testing a patient's self-awareness. Simply asking a patient why they are in the hospital or what is wrong with their body can give compelling answers as to what they see and are analyzing.[46]

Dissociative identity disorder[edit]

Main article: Dissociative identity disorder

Dissociative identity disorder or multiple personality disorder (MPD) is a disorder involving a disturbance of identity in which two or more separate and distinct personality states (or identities) control an individual's behavior at different times.[47] One identity may be different from another, and when an individual with DID is under the influence of one of their identities, they may forget their experiences when they switch to the other identity. "When under the control of one identity, a person is usually unable to remember some of the events that occurred while other personalities were in control."[48] They may experience time loss, amnesia, and adopt different mannerisms, attitudes, speech and ideas under different personalities. They are often unaware of the different lives they lead or their condition in general, feeling as though they are looking at their life through the lens of someone else, and even being unable to recognize themselves in a mirror.[49] Two cases of DID have brought awareness to the disorder, the first case being that of Eve. This patient harbored three different personalities: Eve White the good wife and mother, Eve Black the party girl, and Jane the intellectual. Under stress, her episodes would worsen. She even tried to strangle her own daughter and had no recollection of the act afterward. Eve went through years of therapy before she was able to learn how to control her alters and be mindful of her disorder and episodes. Her condition, being so rare at the time, inspired the book and film adaptation The Three Faces of Eve, as well as a memoir by Eve herself entitled I'm Eve. Doctors speculated that growing up during the Depression and witnessing horrific things being done to other people could have triggered emotional distress, periodic amnesia, and eventually DID.[50] In the second case, Shirley Mason, or Sybil, was described as having over 16 separate personalities with different characteristics and talents. Her accounts of horrific and sadistic abuse by her mother during childhood prompted doctors to believe that this trauma caused her personalities to split, furthering the unproven idea that this disorder was rooted in child abuse, while also making the disorder famous. In 1998 however, Sybil's case was exposed as a sham. Her therapist would encourage Sybil to act as her other alter ego although she felt perfectly like herself. Her condition was exaggerated in order to seal book deals and television adaptations.[51] Awareness of this disorder began to crumble shortly after this finding. To this day, no proven cause of DID has been found, but treatments such as psychotherapy, medications, hypnotherapy, and adjunctive therapies have proven to be very effective.[52]

Autism spectrum disorder[edit]

Main article: Autism spectrum

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of neurodevelopmental disabilities that can adversely impact social communication and create behavioral challenges (Understanding Autism, 2003).[53] "Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors."[54] ASDs can also cause imaginative abnormalities and can range from mild to severe, especially in sensory-motor, perceptual and affective dimensions.[55] Children with ASD may struggle with self-awareness and self acceptance. Their different thinking patterns and brain processing functions in the area of social thinking and actions may compromise their ability to understand themselves and social connections to others.[56] About 75% diagnosed autistics are mentally handicapped in some general way and the other 25% diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome show average to good cognitive functioning.[57] When we compare our own behavior to the morals and values that we were taught, we can focus more attention on ourselves which increases self-awareness. To understand the many effects of autism spectrum disorders on those afflicted have led many scientists to theorize what level of self-awareness occurs and in what degree. Research found that ASD can be associated with intellectual disability and difficulties in motor coordination and attention. It can also result in physical health issues as well, such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. As a result of all those problems, individuals are literally unaware of themselves.[58] It is well known that children suffering from varying degrees of autism struggle in social situations. Scientists at the University of Cambridge have produced evidence that self-awareness is a main problem for people with ASD. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance scans (FMRI) to measure brain activity in volunteers being asked to make judgments about their own thoughts, opinions, preferences, as well as about someone else's. One area of the brain closely examined was the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex (vMPFC) which is known to be active when people think about themselves.[59]

A study out of Stanford University has tried to map out brain circuits with understanding self-awareness in Autism Spectrum Disorders.[60] This study suggests that self-awareness is primarily lacking in social situations but when in private they are more self-aware and present. It is in the company of others while engaging in interpersonal interaction that the self-awareness mechanism seems to fail. Higher functioning individuals on the ASD scale have reported that they are more self-aware when alone unless they are in sensory overload or immediately following social exposure.[61] Self-awareness dissipates when an autistic is faced with a demanding social situation. This theory suggests that this happens due to the behavioral inhibitory system which is responsible for self-preservation. This is the system that prevents human from self-harm like jumping out of a speeding bus or putting our hand on a hot stove. Once a dangerous situation is perceived then the behavioral inhibitory system kicks in and restrains our activities. "For individuals with ASD, this inhibitory mechanism is so powerful, it operates on the least possible trigger and shows an over sensitivity to impending danger and possible threats.[61] Some of these dangers may be perceived as being in the presence of strangers, or a loud noise from a radio. In these situations self-awareness can be compromised due to the desire of self preservation, which trumps social composure and proper interaction.

The Hobson hypothesis reports that autism begins in infancy due to the lack of cognitive and linguistic engagement which in turn results in impaired reflective self-awareness. In this study ten children with Asperger's Syndrome were examined using the Self-understanding Interview. This interview was created by Damon and Hart and focuses on seven core areas or schemas that measure the capacity to think in increasingly difficult levels. This interview will estimate the level of self understanding present. "The study showed that the Asperger group demonstrated impairment in the 'self-as-object' and 'self-as-subject' domains of the Self-understanding Interview, which supported Hobson's concept of an impaired capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection in people with ASD.".[62] Self-understanding is a self description in an individual's past, present and future. Without self-understanding it is reported that self-awareness is lacking in people with ASD.

Joint attention (JA) was developed as a teaching strategy to help increase positive self-awareness in those with autism spectrum disorder.[63] JA strategies were first used to directly teach about reflected mirror images and how they relate to their reflected image. Mirror Self Awareness Development (MSAD) activities were used as a four-step framework to measure increases in self-awareness in those with ASD. Self-awareness and knowledge is not something that can simply be taught through direct instruction. Instead, students acquire this knowledge by interacting with their environment.[63] Mirror understanding and its relation to the development of self leads to measurable increases in self-awareness in those with ASD. It also proves to be a highly engaging and highly preferred tool in understanding the developmental stages of self- awareness.

There have been many different theories and studies done on what degree of self-awareness is displayed among people with autism spectrum disorder. Scientists have done research about the various parts of the brain associated with understanding self and self-awareness. Studies have shown evidence of areas of the brain that are impacted by ASD. Other theories suggest that helping an individual learn more about themselves through Joint Activities, such as the Mirror Self Awareness Development may help teach positive self-awareness and growth. In helping to build self-awareness it is also possible to build self-esteem and self acceptance. This in turn can help to allow the individual with ASD to relate better to their environment and have better social interactions with others.


Main article: Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a chronic psychiatric illness characterized by excessive dopamine activity in the mesolimbic tract and insufficient dopamine activity in the mesocortical tract leading to symptoms of psychosis along with poor cognition in socialization. Under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, people with schizophrenia have a combination of positive, negative and psychomotor symptoms. These cognitive disturbances involve rare beliefs and/or thoughts of a distorted reality that creates an abnormal pattern of functioning for the patient. The cause of schizophrenia has a substantial genetic component involving many genes. While the heritability of schizophrenia has been found to be around 80%, only about 60% of sufferers report a positive family history of the disorder, and ultimately the cause is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.[64] It is believed that the experience of stressful life events is an environmental factor that can trigger the onset of schizophrenia in individuals who already are at risk from genetics and age.[65] The level of self-awareness among patients with schizophrenia is a heavily studied topic.

Schizophrenia as a disease state is characterized by severe cognitive dysfunction and it is uncertain to what extent patients are aware of this deficiency. Medalia and Lim (2004),[66] investigated patients’ awareness of their cognitive deficit in the areas of attention, nonverbal memory, and verbal memory. Results from this study (N=185) revealed large discrepancy in patients’ assessment of their cognitive functioning relative to the assessment of their clinicians. Though it is impossible to access ones’ consciousness and truly understand what a schizophrenic believes, regardless in this study, patients were not aware of their cognitive dysfunctional reasoning. In the DSM-5, to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, they must have two or more of the following symptoms in the duration of one month: delusions*, hallucinations*, disorganized speech*, grossly disorganized/catatonic behavior and negative symptoms (*these three symptoms above all other symptoms must be present to correctly diagnose a patient.) Sometimes these symptoms are very prominent and are treated with a combination of antipsychotics (i.e. haloperidol, loxapine), atypical antipsychotics (such as clozapine and risperdone) and psychosocial therapies that include family interventions and socials skills. When a patient is undergoing treatment and recovering from the disorder, the memory of their behavior is present in a diminutive amount; thus, self-awareness of diagnoses of schizophrenia after treatment is rare, as well as subsequent to onset and prevalence in the patient.

The above findings are further supported by a study conducted by Amador and colleagues.[67] The study suggests a correlation exists between patient insight, compliance and disease progression. Investigators assess insight of illness was assessed via Scale to Assess Unawareness of Mental Disorder and was used along with rating of psychopathology, course of illness, and compliance with treatments in a sample of 43 patients. Patients with poor insight are less likely to be compliant with treatment and are more likely to have a poorer prognosis. Patients with hallucinations sometimes experience positive symptoms, which can include delusions of reference, thought insertion/withdrawal, thought broadcast, delusions of persecution, grandiosity and many more. These psychoses skew the patient's perspectives of reality in ways in which they truly believe are really happening. For instance, a patient that is experiencing delusions of reference may believe while watching the weather forecast that when the weatherman says it will rain, he is really sending a message to the patient in which rain symbolizes a specific warning completely irrelevant to what the weather is. Another example would be thought broadcast, which is when a patient believes that everyone can hear their thoughts. These positive symptoms sometimes are so severe to where the schizophrenic believes that something is crawling on them or smelling something that is not there in reality. These strong hallucinations are intense and difficult to convince the patient that they do not exist outside of their cognitive beliefs, making it extremely difficult for a patient to understand and become self-aware that what they are experiencing is in fact not there.

Furthermore, a study by Bedford and Davis[68] (2013) was conducted to look at the association of denial vs. acceptance of multiple facets of schizophrenia (self reflection, self perception and insight) and its effect on self-reflection (N=26). Study results suggest patients with increased disease denial have lower recollection for self evaluated mental illnesses. To a great extent, disease denial creates a hardship for patients to undergo recovery because their feelings and sensations are intensely outstanding. But just as this and the above studies imply, a large proportion of schizophrenics do not have self-awareness of their illness for many factors and severity of reasoning of their diagnoses.

Bipolar disorder[edit]

Main article: Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is an illness that causes shifts in mood, energy, and ability to function. Self-awareness is crucial in those suffering from this disease, as they must be able to distinguish between feeling a certain way because of the disorder or because of separate issues. "Personality, behavior, and dysfunction affect your bipolar disorder, so you must 'know' yourself in order to make the distinction."[69] This disorder is a difficult one to diagnose, as self-awareness changes with mood. "For instance, what might appear to you as confidence and clever ideas for a new business venture might be a pattern of grandiose thinking and manic behavior".[70] Issues occur between understanding irrationality in a mood swing and being completely wrapped in a manic episode, rationalizing that the exhibited behaviors are normal.


Bodily (self-)awareness is related to proprioception and visualization.


Self-discrimination in plants is found within their roots, tendrils and flowers that avoid themselves but not others in their environment.[71]


Main article: Theater

Theater also concerns itself with other awareness besides self-awareness. There is a possible correlation between the experience of the theater audience and individual self-awareness. As actors and audiences must not "break" the fourth wall in order to maintain context, so individuals must not be aware of the artificial, or the constructed perception of his or her reality. This suggests that both self-awareness and the social constructs applied to others are artificial continuums just as theater is. Theatrical efforts such as Six Characters in Search of an Author, or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, construct yet another layer of the fourth wall, but they do not destroy the primary illusion. Refer to Erving Goffman's Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience.[citation needed]

Science fiction[edit]

Main article: Science fiction

In science fiction, self-awareness describes an essential human property that often (depending on the circumstances of the story) bestows personhood onto a non-human. If a computer, alien or other object is described as "self-aware", the reader may assume that it will be treated as a completely human character, with similar rights, capabilities and desires to a normal human being.[72] The words "sentience", "sapience" and "consciousness" are used in similar ways in science fiction.

See also[edit]


  1. ^"Self-awareness - Definition of Self-awareness by Merriam-Webster". 
  2. ^Ferris, Jabr. "Self-Awareness with a Simple Brain". 
  3. ^Oberman, L.; Ramachandran, V.S. (2009). "Reflections on the Mirror Neuron System: Their Evolutionary Functions Beyond Motor Representation". In Pineda, J.A. Mirror Neuron Systems: The Role of Mirroring Processes in Social Cognition. Humana Press. pp. 39–62. ISBN 978-1-934115-34-3. 
  4. ^Ramachandran, V.S. (January 1, 2009). "Self Awareness: The Last Frontier, Edge Foundation web essay". Retrieved July 26, 2011. 
  5. ^Plotnik, Waal, Reiss, Joshua, Frans, Diana (2006). "Self recognition in an Asian elephant". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 103: 17053–17057. doi:10.1073/pnas.0608062103. 
  6. ^Bekoff, M (2002). "Animal reflections". Nature. 419: 255. doi:10.1038/419255a. 
  7. ^Toivanen, Juhana (July 2013). "Perceptual Self-Awareness in Seneca, Augustine, and Olivi". Journal of the History of Philosophy. 51 (3): 355–382. doi:10.1353/hph.2013.0061. 
  8. ^Gallup Jr, G. G.; Anderson, J. R., & Shillito, D. J. (2002). "The mirror test. The cognitive animal: Empirical and theoretical perspectives on animal cognition"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on October 6, 2014. 
  9. ^Plotnik et al., (2006)
  10. ^ abcdefgPrior, H; Schwarz, A., Güntürkün, O (2008). "Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition". PLoS Biol. 6 (8): e202. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202. PMC 2517622. PMID 18715117. 
  11. ^Tennesen, M (2003). "Do Dolphins Have a Sense of Self?". National Wildlife. World Edition. 
  12. ^Bard, Kim (2006). "Self-Awareness in Human and Chimpanzee Infants: What Is Measured and What Is Meant by the Mark and Mirror Test?". Infancy. 9: 191–219. doi:10.1207/s15327078in0902_6. 
  13. ^Alison, Motluk. "Mirror test shows magpies aren't so bird-brained". Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  14. ^Cazzolla Gatti, Roberto (2016-04-02). "Self-consciousness: beyond the looking-glass and what dogs found there". Ethology Ecology & Evolution. 28 (2): 232–240. doi:10.1080/03949370.2015.1102777. ISSN 0394-9370. 
  15. ^"Sniff tests proves dogs can be added to the list of self aware animals". Mail Online. Retrieved 2016-12-05. 
  16. ^Crew, Bec. "Dogs Show Signs of Self-Consciousness in New 'Sniff Test'". ScienceAlert. Retrieved 2016-12-05. 
  17. ^Bekoff, Marc (2001-08-15). "Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow". Behavioural Processes. 55 (2): 75–79. doi:10.1016/S0376-6357(01)00142-5. 
  18. ^ ab"Dogs (and probably many other animals) have a conscience too!". Retrieved 2016-12-05. 
  19. ^How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence, Rolf Pfeifer, Josh Bongard October 2006
  20. ^The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique, Lieberman, P 2013
  21. ^ abcdRochat, Philippe (2003). "Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life"
The Painter and the Buyer (1565).
In this drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the painter is thought to be a self-portrait.
Major brain structures implicated in autism.
Artistic view of how the world feels like with schizophrenia.

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