Just what does make me ‘me’?

By | October 21, 2009

Professor Marcus du SautoyOver the last few months I have been on an extraordinary journey to find out what makes me “me”.

I have had my brain scanned, tricked, electrocuted, drugged in a plethora of different experiments in my attempt to find out what it is that gives me the feeling that there is someone inside my head. Science calls it the search for consciousness. I call it the search for “me”.

I was not always aware of myself as a human being separate from those around me. But at what point does this self-awareness kick-in?

A fascinating experiment at University of Portsmouth indicates that it is between the ages of 18-24 months that a child’s brain develops to a stage when it suddenly becomes conscious of itself as an individual.

To test this each child is placed in front of a mirror and encouraged to play.

At some point the child will probably engage with its image in the mirror.

Once this interaction has been established, the carer takes the child away from the mirror and while wiping its nose the carer surreptitiously places a red dot on the child’s face in a place that cannot be seen or felt by the child. The child is then returned to play in front of the mirror.

In one case Owen, aged 16 months, engaged again with his image in the mirror but at no point was he particularly concerned that the image he saw had a large red dot on its face. In contrast when 22 month old Bethan saw her image in the mirror her hand immediately shot up to her face as she explored the strange spot that she saw on her cheek.

The strong reaction is an indication that Bethan recognises the image and thinks “that’s me”.

At some point during the brain development something happens which means we become self-aware – but quite what it is still remains a mystery. …

The Mirror Self Recognition Test was devised in the seventies by Professor Gordon Gallup. Originally he was looking to test consciousness not in children but animals.

“One day I found myself shaving in front of the mirror and it occurred to me: wouldn’t it be interesting to see if chimpanzees could recognise themselves in mirrors,” he said. Indeed they do. So how many other animals pass this test for consciousness?

It turns out that we are remarkably alone in the animal kingdom. In addition to chimpanzees only orang-utans recognise themselves in the mirror.

Of course if you ask most pet-owners they will probably argue vociferously that their dog, cat or hamster is conscious. Failing the test does not mean that other animals are not self-aware – but a positive result is convincing evidence for a brain that has developed a sense of “me”.

via BBC NEWS | Health | Just what does make me ‘me’?.

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