Self awareness is a remarkable characteristic of humans. It is our constant companion during our waking hours and indispensible in everyday life. We take it for granted. It is the “I” feeling in each of us, the division in our consciousness that tells each one of us is a distinct person, separate from all that is around. If you’ve woken from dreamless sleep in the morning, it is self-awareness that works with memory to recreate the world that we were familiar with. It reminds us where we are, how we are feeling and makes us do things.
It is hard, however, to pin down or quantify in concrete scientific terms what this awareness actually is. Hard because it is the same self-awareness that wants to quantify itself – like a dog that wants to tirelessly chase its tail.
But it is possible, I think, to get a qualitative sense of self-awareness, by understanding the nature of thought.
Behind each thought that arises in the mind there seems to be a “thinker”, the coordinating entity -- the “I” – which produces the effect of being self-aware. The thinker, to use the jargon of spirituality, is the ego. However lost or spaced out we are, this thinker always seems to be present even if it is at the periphery. The thinker seems to own the thought, whatever the nature of that thought may be: a positive thought, a great idea, a sad feeling etc. This ownership in turn leads the thinker to feel it is “happy”, “intelligent”, “sad” etc. This probably what is happening when someone says, “I am feeling great” or “I am feeling miserable”. When we feel some intense emotion, then there seems to be something within us that feels it.
Does the thinker actually exist? If so where in the brain is it? That is too difficult a question. We may never find a satisfactory answer. It is possible that there may be no thinker at all, just biochemical reactions in the brain that create the illusion of a thinker. The thinker may simply be another thought, except that it pervades all other thoughts. This agrees with one of the pillars of Buddhism, that there is no self. If there is no thinker then whatever is happening is simply happening -- there is no one making it happen. Free will exists only if there is such a thing as a thinker in each individual. Otherwise, there is only the illusion of free will. There is a dangerous determinism that accompanies this argument, but let's not go there for now. All is this pretty speculative anyway.
What really matters is the thinker’s existence is pretty convincing to each individual. In fact, the individual feels she exists because the thinker in her exists. This recalls Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” though I don’t know if he said it in the same context. That is why when a thought is not pleasant, then the thinker does not feel good either – and that is the root of individual suffering.