Let us sidestep fundamental questions such as whether there is in fact self-awareness. In this, let us define self-awareness in its common form of usage, typically meaning awareness of one’s motivations, emotions, bodily processes; certain environmental aspects, motives of others in given social contexts, and so on. This is a typical definition in common pursuits such as “mindfulness meditation”, but it is also an obvious definition in relation to children, who grow more self-aware as they age.

Beyond physiological explanations (e.g likely no one will ever become self-aware of individual brain neuron operations), how else can we begin to describe the limits of self-awareness?

  • Difficult question. My understanding is that if one wants to be a psychoanalyst (Freudian tradition) then they have to be psychoanalyzed first in order that don't bring their own mental baggage, hang-ups, etc. into their practice. Sounds like a good idea to me. I don't think we are ever fully transparent to ourselves.
    – Gordon
    Nov 21, 2017 at 19:44
  • What are "limits" of self-awareness? Do you mean some sort of translation of first person perspective into third person perspective but not into low level (physiological) terms but something more aggregated, like functionalist or psychological models?
    – Conifold
    Nov 21, 2017 at 21:22
  • 1
    I'm guessing one could start with Plato's Allegory of the Cave. And I know you want a philosophical perspective, but you could also look at what it takes for an animal to recognize itself in a mirror... an interesting evolutionary biology question.
    – Fizz
    Nov 24, 2017 at 2:27
  • Also plato.stanford.edu/entries/self-knowledge
    – Fizz
    Nov 24, 2017 at 2:37
  • @Fizz - Many thanks. The references are helpful, and I especially like the Stanford link and bibliography. Nov 25, 2017 at 23:44

4 Answers 4


If physicalism is true that everything supervenes on the physical, then the mind and its mental processes supervene on the brain and its neural processes. At present, the evidence that the mind and its mental processes are totally dependent on the brain and its neural processes are very strong. No one has ever been able to definitely show that the former entities can occur, change, disappear independently of the latter entities (mind is part of the brain).

If this is correct, then the theoretical limits of self-awareness are the limits of self-awareness neural process. For example, theoretically, this neural process cannot be aware of many unconscious sensations in one’s own body (such as blood levels of oxygen, sodium, or hormones), cerebellar and basal ganglia functions (in control of accurate muscle contraction, tone, and balance), early-stages of sensory perceptions (such as what the visual stimuli are like at the primary visual areas), early-stages of language functions (such as what the semantic content of the sound “Hello” is like when it first arrives at the language areas), and many other cognitive processes (such as how intelligent one is, where in the mind the memory is kept, and where in the mind the instincts reside), so the mind will not be able to be aware of these processes either even if they are in itself. This is theoretically because there are no neural connections between these processes and the self-awareness neural process.

But for neural processes that connect to the self-awareness neural process, such as all the final-stage perception processes, the final-stage language process, and even one own self-awareness process, self-awareness can be aware of them.

Edit: I'm sorry. I've just realized that you may want a non-physiological answer, but this answer seems to be heavily in physiology. However,it's the fact based on current evidence, and I hope it helps in answering the limits of self-awareness.

  • Much appreciated! Jun 16, 2018 at 18:39

Perhaps the defining factor to come close to an answer for you is, "Where does the core identity of ‘self’ come from?" We are born with awareness and an innate ability to recognize and connect to the world around us. That is the basis of consciousness. Your definition of self-awareness seems to be a closer match to consciousness than awareness. The identity structure of a ‘self’ must be taught to us, and then we can begin to be ‘at cause’ in most choices we make based on those values. There are numerous cultural and religious ‘self’ standard agreements promulgated through the centuries, so, even what is empirical to what fits the self you are taught to recognize, is a variant model, not a generally agreed model. Consciousness is not always mindful or self-aware. In discussing awareness limitations for a self, a new question rises, “Am I only those traits, habits and functions that I recognize, or am I also what others perceive me to be?”

  • Self-awareness is used interchangably with consciousness. Tests for it include Turing test and mirror recognition. Not good tests, but they have been intended for that.
    – rus9384
    Jun 15, 2018 at 16:35
  • “Am I only those traits, habits and functions that I recognize, or am I also what others perceive me to be?” Or, am I neither of these as so many claim.
    – user20253
    Jul 16, 2018 at 11:41
  • @PeterJ It would be impossible to be so impeccably accurate in your standards of conduct to be, '..only those traits, habits and functions that I recognize." And, with the core of self awareness an agreement on standards of conduct (and relative value of those standards in priority), I would have to say both, not neither. Psyche, being the whole structure of an individual, is autonomous, not singular. Jul 17, 2018 at 15:31
  • @NormanEdward - Fair enough. But your question has an answer you do not consider and I'd say it's the correct one. .
    – user20253
    Jul 18, 2018 at 9:30
  • @PeterJ There is a current idea floating around that we are never 'unconscious' or 'subconscious' as Freud described. That 'unconscious' and 'subconscious' actions are related to learned, or reactive considerations and practices. The idea is tied to the notion that we are, and never were, dualistic self of Descartes. Those are difficult ideas given that we learn both of these as part of the 'self' we have been taught. Jul 19, 2018 at 23:17

If the sages are correct then there are no limits. But 'self-aware' is a tricky phrase. Most people do not follow the Oracle's advice and so do not investigate self-awareness. This would not be awareness of something other that the self (thoughts, motivations, bodily sensations etc. are not the self).

For the Upanishads the world is the Self so there would be a difference between 'self-aware' and Self-aware' where the the latter would be the greater form of awareness.

But the language is tricky. I'm not sure why the question doesn't just ask about awareness. This would avoid the ambiguity of 'self' as a word.

  • Becoming aware the self is an illusion is surely the opposite of unlimited self knowledge..? Atman and union with divine nature also suggest a realising of a nature which is beyond description, and presumably reflection and analysis
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 16, 2018 at 18:08
  • @CriglCragl - I see your point. The difficulty is the two quite different meanings of 'self'. I would agree with your epistemological point but it refers to a final 'becoming' and there is a lot of self-knowledge to be acquired on the way to that destination. Beyond description, certainly, but not beyond analysis or reflection. If it were entirely beyond reflection and analysis the literature of mysticism would not be extensive. .
    – user20253
    Jul 17, 2018 at 10:08
  • @PeterJ In this usage, 'self' is a referential context of values connected to relative social value systems. For the distinction used here, it is fiction, or, an intangible abstract construction from multiple sources that functions as an individual in society. Importantly, this is not the same as a legal self. Legal references to a self imply standards for appropriate and inappropriate conduct. Jul 17, 2018 at 16:31
  • @NormanEdward - Yes. that is one meaning of the word. But an answer to the question here would require exploring the meaning of (upper-case) 'Self' as used by, say, the Upanishads. This is because the constructed 'self' to which you refer would be a disguise of the true 'Self' to which the sages refer.
    – user20253
    Jul 18, 2018 at 9:27
  • See additional comment above. Jul 19, 2018 at 23:46

Anil Seth and Sam Harris suggest an artificial general intelligence would like humans have to have an unconscious: Waking Up with Sam Harris #113 — Consciousness and the Self (with Anil K. Seth) https://youtu.be/T3QiFAcJnMg

In the Buddhist view, enlightenment means ceasing to create karma. But not, freedom from causes and conditions up to that point. An awakened person is still subject to the ripening of the karma they have accrued. The freedom they attain, is from that causing them suffering, or being part of a causal chain that causes suffering for others. Karma includes all causal phenomena, not just psycological. So say volcanoes and earthquakes are part of the causes and conditions that shield us from cosmic rays. We could only arise here on Earth because of such conditions, and awakening will not change that. This is parallelled by 'inherited' mental activity, instincts, habits, culture.

Our consciousness does a lot of things in the background, to give us a sense of being an agent in a situation - see Anil Seth's Ted talk 'Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality'. To be completely aware of some of these processes could be interesting in terms of understanding them, but to do it continuously would involve a kind of continuous recursion, with mental energy focused on watching all mental processess, and watching those etc etc. This would fundamentally get in the way of those processes, in the way of normal cognition.

Consider also the is-ought distinction. We derive motives from sentiments. Facts alone and rational analysis may aid in decision making, but as they talk about in Thinking Fast And Slow we risk 'analysis paralysis'. We have to be able to adapt to importance of decisions and relative risks, and weigh them against time and energy making the decision and the importance of doing so in a timely way. We are constantly dealing with incomplete information in limited time, and we develop our 'character' as a heuristic attitude from this. Understanding the nature of that, and whether it is good or bad or how to change it, may require observing ourselves in action; cooking rather than reading the recipe.

When we look 'under the hood' at how we make decisions, very often we come to a quick conclusion, which we then take time to justify. Most of our reasoning is post hoc https://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2013/11/14/post-hoc-rationalisation-reasoning-our-intuition-and-changing-our-minds/

Who we are now cannot become simply a rational decision in the moment. We have educated and trained our intuitions, our sense of contexts. Our senses don't just recieve passively, they are active and participatory in the reality we inhabit. Meditation and other practices for increasing self-awareness enable increasing glimpses of the machinery behind our minds. But we cannot wholesale reconstitute what makes us, that would be pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. We can pay attention to what we feed our minds, how we educate our intuitions. Spiritual practices like developing empathy and compassion for instance. And leading an ethical life - lying for instance eats up cognitive capacity and drives creation of distinctive brain tissue types.

Meditation is about developing an attitude of constantly being present to what your mind is doing, and seeking insights from that into why. Long term meditators seem to experience higher rates of gamma wave activity in the brain https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC526201/ These are associated with the grouping of disparate sensations into perception of things as a whole, and sudden insights. An ability to quiten the brain may give more space to being able to understand itself and it's motivations.

In summary. We can gain insight into the mechanisms and processes, but not fully observe and control them without getting in their way. We can bring about long term shifts through consistent behaviour change, which can of course be rooted in insights experienced suddenly. Consciousness has a heuristic quality, associated with dealing with limited information in time limited ways, which may have to be seen in action rather than unravelled by observation.

  • You don't have to study your own brain. Then, your own consciousness can obviously get into your interpretation but not more than when studying plasma or tigers.
    – Probably
    Jul 20, 2018 at 12:03
  • @Probably The concept of qualia says you does..
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 20, 2018 at 13:07
  • that's where I disagree. you write we have "limited information" (cause it's coming from our senses) but that's not the limit that makes studying consciousness different from studying tigers. it's not our measuring tools but what's measured. and about that, saying "we cannot know" 1. doesn't help anything 2. doesn't reflect broad knowledge we actually have.
    – Probably
    Jul 20, 2018 at 18:22
  • @Probably You totally missed my points. Limited information, in the sense of coming to good decisions despited that, quickly. As opposed to making perfect rational decisions based on perfect information. To study what it's like being inside a brain, you have to study, what it's like being in a brain..
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 21, 2018 at 11:15
  • Great, that's "what's measured". But it doesn't tell us anything except "we don't know anything about consciousness"
    – Probably
    Jul 22, 2018 at 10:20

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