The Dawn of Self-Consciousness

A sudden moment of self-awareness in childhood propels people on a quest to explore life’s mysteries

by John Horgan

At the beginning of my book Mind-Body Problems, I describe one of my earliest childhood memories:

I am walking near a river on a hot summer day. My left hand grips a fishing rod, my right a can of worms. One friend walks in front of me, another behind. We’re headed to a spot on the river where we can catch perch, bullheads and large-mouth bass. Weeds bordering the path block my view of the river, but I can smell its dank breath and feel its chill on my skin. The seething of cicadas builds to a crescendo.

I stop short. I’m me, I say. My friends don’t react, so I say, louder, I’m me. The friend before me glances over his shoulder and keeps walking, the friend behind pushes me. I resume walking, still thinking, I’m me, I’m me. I feel lonely, scared, exhilarated, bewildered.

That moment was when I first became self-conscious, aware of myself as something weird, distinct from the rest of the world, demanding explanation. Or so I came to believe when I recalled the incident in subsequent decades. I never really talked about it, because it was hard to describe. It meant a lot to me, but I doubted it would mean much to anyone else. Then I learned that others have had similar experiences.

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