[Neural Tribe series]
The ability to recognize yourself in the mirror is a behavioral index of self-awareness. As part of extending the radius of identification to all of our neural brothers and sisters (regardless of their animal form) we – as a Neural Tribe – have to redefine what constitutes self-awareness. Why? Because the current mirror-based criterion for self-awareness draws an arguably rigid delineation between those of us who are self-aware and those of us who are apparently not. Most recently this delineation has been advocated on the basis of the so-called VENneurons (or von Economo Neurons).
I propose a far more basic test of self-awareness: self-awareness is functionally synonymous with self-preservation: any life-form that exhibits self-preservation is obviously aware of itself as being separate from its environment. Poke an amoeba with a needle and it will react in defense by moving away. Place a few pellets of starch in its vicinity and it will move towards them licking its “pseudo-lips” in appetitive anticipation. Any functional pursuit of wellbeing – be it flight-or-fight or metabolic pursuits – is evidence that a given neural organization (that inhabits a given life-form) wants to continue to be what it currently is.
This self-preservation is the basis of all life, it’s called autopoiesis. Autopoiesis is self-awareness. All life runs on a basic self/non-self duality. And this self/non-self duality is the basis of self-awareness whether you can recognize yourself in the mirror or not.
I call this autopoietic criterion of self-awareness or skinthink.
Are neurons self-aware? Put differently, are neurons self-preserving? Of course, they are. Dendritic competition is evidence of single-neuron self-awareness. To compete, any life-form – whether it is multicellular or unicellular – any life-form has to distinguish self from its competition and pursue its metabolic (and arguably conscious) wellbeing in a zero-sum manner. Would a neuron recognize itself in a mirror? it does, doesn’t it?! After all, when “you” look in the mirror who sees “you”? Your liver? Your ankle? Of course, not. Neurons see themselves. But even if they didn’t, the very fact that they a) exist and b) try to continue to exist by leveraging their metabolic supply (as evidenced by dendritic competition) suggests that neurons are self-aware.
Reconceptualizing self-awareness in this autopoietic sense (rather than relying on the mirror test) allows us, the neurons that inhabit human bodies, to see ourselves in any mirror of neural manifestation.
Realize: a neural colony that you are, you don’t have to sport a single VEN (von Economo neuron) to be self-aware. To be self-aware you simply have to just be (alive).
Mirror or not, reflect on this, Neural Dweller: wherever you find a neuron, there – as a species – you are. To identify is to mirror. And to mirror is to identify. A neuron is a neuron, regardless of whether it is inside a human or a hamster.
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Last reviewed: 22 Nov 2012