Explaining Self: The Cognitive Self

Previously, I introduced the meaning and importance of the word ‘self’ from a psychospiritual vista. If you return to these blogs you will see that I stressed a modern approach to the structure of ego states and personality–closely related to concepts stressed by the Buddha and Gurdjieff.

In this blog series, I will review modern concepts of the psychological development of the ‘concept of selfness,’ the establishment of episodic, or autographic, memory, ego states, and how such operate cooperatively or uncooperatively. Of much importance is Federn’s psychoanalytic concept of ego- and object-cathexis. Such concepts are critically important for understanding the origin of your cognitive self, as a useful psychosocial construct and how it relates to a deeper and truer sense of being present in your life.

Later, we will delve into the source(s) from which our feeling of being present in our bodies derives.

First, there is no hard evidence suggesting that neonates and young children have no sensation or experience of possessing a ‘self’ until somewhere around 18 months (range 16 to 24 months). By self, I am referring to personal knowledge possessed by the child that there exists a ‘me–mine’ entity and action generating agent. It is helpful to understand that the cognitive concept of existing as an agent is a psychological construct and not simply CNS functioning.

Prior to this, a baby appears to be aware of his or her immediate goals and actions in distinction from the goals and actions of others by the end of the first year of life. Such intentionality arising from continuous, bilateral social interactions and exposure to language. However, it is not accurate to claim that baby is aware of himself or herself as an actor per se. Rather, during this period of life babies possesses a ‘protoself’ similar to that functioning in a canine or higher primate.

The protoself functions essentially within the present moment, failing to display any awareness of times past or times future. Exactly, how long the present moment lasts for a dog, chimp, or a baby is unknown. But, from my personal observations, I would say a few minutes at best.

The protoself has access to procedural, implicit memory and declarative, explicit memory. The first memory system necessary for the performance of overt and covert motor actions such as walking, running, mating, eating, swallowing, flight and fight, and so on. Such activities are called scripts by psychologists. The second memory system is necessary for the retention and recollection of important factual data as to past interactions with others, geographical mapping of place, and so on.

For example, a creature having only a protoself will remember encounters with dangerous animals, where food supplies and water sources are located, its burrow and so on; however, there is no actual time sense correlated with such data. The past simply enters the present as if it were just another fact of the present.

For convenience, I differentiate the protoself from the psychological, cognitive construct of self, or the ‘cognitive self.’

In early work on self development, researchers were interested in when human babies achieve self-recognition when looking into a mirror or on a video. In a typical mirror recognition test, a spot of rouge or a little sticker is surreptitiously placed on the child’s nose or forehead prior to allowing the child to see his or her reflection in a mirror. A child who reaches to touch the spot on his or her own face (rather than pointing to the mirror, for example) is assessed as passing the mirror test of self-recognition. Most children pass this test sometime between 16 and 24 months of age. Passing the mirror test is indicative of a child possessing some degree of self–consciousness, evidenced by the behavioral onset of shyness, embarrassment, and inhibition of personal actions.

The evidence supports the contention that before establishment of the cognitive self, as indexed by mirror self-recognition, there can be no autobiographical memory because there is no “I.”
With the appearance of the cognitive self, a psychoneural apparatus, a schema of self, around which memories of personal experience, as to time, place, and persons, can coalesce, allowing for autobiographical memory. The new feeling of self is closely connected to the child’s feeling of a personal past and future, as children develop the understanding that it was the same self that exists in the present that experienced an event in the past.

Although, the beginnings of selfhood appear between 16 and 24 months, the process is not instantaneous or complete until the child reaches the age of 4 or 5. For instance, researchers have studied the understanding of the temporal relation of the present self to the past self in 3 and 4 year olds using a delayed self-recognition paradigm. In this video paradigm, while, the child is engaged in a game of sorting cards, the experimenter surreptitiously places a sticker on the child’s head. Such sticker remaining after the game. A few minutes later, the child watches the video recording and will point to and name his or her image on the screen. However, whereas most 4 and 5 olds noted the sticker and attempted to remove it from their heads, very few 3 year olds did so. This research indicates that the cognitive self is not fully developed, relating past to present selves in a temporal continuum. Additional research found a strong relation between such findings and the richness of children’s recall of personal episodes.

Quickly following upon the heels of the cognitive self comes the ‘theory of mind.’ Theory of mind, conceptualized as children’s ability to attribute mental states as causally related to action, and specifically to entertain the possibility of “false belief” on the part of oneself or another, has been extensively studied over the past 30 years. By age 2, children utilize both emotion and desire, suggesting an understanding that self and others have desires relating to their actions and that others’ desires may be different from his or her own. However, it is not until 4 years of age that children begin to understand that he or she and others can believe something that is not true of the world, hold a false belief. Such knowledge is crucial to understanding that others often differ in their beliefs about the world. Both, ‘theory of mind’ and autobiographical memory involve an understanding of psychological states, their causes, and temporality, requiring meta-representational ability.

Tomorrow, I will cover the development and importance of autobiographical memory for the budding cognitive self and the maturation of the adult ego system. Following this, I will discuss Federn’s model of ego and object cathexis and its importance for differentiation of self vs other. Last, I shall discuss what the Institute has to say about the actual source explaining the arising of the cognitive self and ego states.

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