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Awareness of self and awareness of selfness: Why the capacity to self-model represents a novel level of cognition in humans

As humans, we value our capacity for self-awareness highly; we even see it as something which differentiates us from most other animals. But what do we mean when we say we are self-aware? How does a self determine that it is aware of itself; what is the self aware of when it is self-aware; and how and why did our particular type of self-awareness arise in our species?

This paper attempts to answer these questions by looking at our self-awareness as a product of our highly socialised and highly communicative culture. It proposes that our peculiar self-awareness is a product of a relatively ancient capacity to model relationships between other members of our social group, and a relatively recent capacity to share those models. 

In section 2, the paper gives an overview of awareness, showing that it has many levels: it represents a continuum of mind-body relationships throughout nature, from the internal-external differentiation of amoebae through to the self-analysis of humanity. Section 3 examines the primate capacity to model relationships between other members of their groups, and discusses the type of cognition, known as Machiavellian Intelligence, that this modelling requires. The particular self-awareness of humans is then examined in detail in section 4: while not always in this state, we do have the capacity to step outside of ourselves and model ourselves as if we were other people. As well as an awareness of self as an entity, we have an awareness of selfness, which give us a capacity to model a "myself" as if it were a "themself". The way this capacity emerges from the sharing of social models is addressed. 

Finally, section 5 looks at the significance of modelled selfhood in terms of how it defines us as a species. It considers the effect that awareness of selfness has on cognition and communication, showing that the range of messages transmissible grows exponentially when communicants have the capacity to model themselves as communicants. It also reviews the role of recursion in language origins, arguing that, while it is certainly a key marker for human language, it is not a precursor but an emergent feature, a product of pre-existing language-like behaviour linked to the development of awareness of selfness.

Key words: Language origins, protolanguage, self-awareness, social communication, primate communication, cognitive modelling


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