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The power of self-awareness: The anatomy of the whole self

A representation of right brain versus left brain.

Welcome back! (If you’re puzzled by my greeting, go back and read Part 1.)

After reading the last edition, I hope you were prodded to start thinking about self-awareness as different and deeper than you may have thought of it before. The previous article pointed out that the dynamic duo of attention and awareness are not the same thing and at this point, you may be wondering if something about this will enhance our understanding of self-awareness. 

If you thought that, you’d be right.

In this edition, we’re going to look at our topic from a “neuro-psycho-social” point-of-view derived from the science of interpersonal neurobiology, various schools of psychology, and attachment theory.1

“Science!? Oh no. I’m outta here!”

I know, I know. The dreaded “S” word. Now, now…Clear your mind of the memories of high school biology and chemistry. There will be no dissections or endless memorizations here. No esoteric talk or tests, either. The goal is to help you understand the vessel in which you live so you might make better choices and live a happier life. It’s worth a little science talk to get there, right?

Disclaimer: Before we begin, I want to say that I’ve done the hard work of learning all the science. I know what the dorsal-lateral pre-frontal cortex, the insulate, and the nucleus accumbens are. I know what brain functions are responsible for you scratching your knee or tasting your favorite hot drink. You, however, don’t need to know all this. To be relevant and useful, I’m going to translate difficult concepts into stories, metaphors, and analogies. For our purposes, this will work well—but it isn’t what you’d see in a technical textbook. Don’t let that worry you. I’m saying the same things in a more understandable and functional way.

Now, to kick this all off, I can think of no better place to start than with the self, well, itself!

Defining the whole self

When I say “me,” what do I mean? What is “me”?

As I sit here in the only coffee shop big enough for six-plus-feet-apart indoor seating within a five-mile radius of my home, I gaze out the window at the markers of a typical Seattle-area fall day, namely gloomy gray sky. I notice a group of happy-sounding ladies chatting at a large rectangular table to my right. I hear their words, but they don’t stick as I have no context for them. The distance between us, the difference in what we are attending to, the way we all dress, and even the drinks we all chose tell me that they are not me.

That may seem to go without saying, but I say it because of the tendency to think of ourselves as individuals, distinct and disconnected from others. In some ways, that is true. However, according to the science of self-awareness, there is no “me” without a “we”.

I’ll explain.

We’ve heard of ourselves described as body, mind, and spirit. That is a familiar idea, however, it’s also inadequate and underused. Science contends that there’s (at least) a fourth dimension to us, namely, our social contacts. Environment, culture, and other issues definitely play a part in who and how we are, but to lay a foundation, we can start with these four.

Let’s take each of these four aspects of self in turn.

Body

Composed of flesh, bone, and fluids, our bodies can be seen, measured, touched, smelled, heard, felt, and even tasted if we so desire. Seventy-eight organs, two-hundred six bones, around six hundred muscles, and over eighty-six billion neurons with trillions and trillions of neural connections work together in incomprehensible precision and harmony every time we sing a song, kiss a lover, or pick our nose. 

As I sit here in my favorite coffee shop eyeing the people around me, I see their physical bodies as conglomerations of the aforementioned corporal mechanisms and think of them as separate and different from me. From the body perspective alone, I would be correct.

Mind

According to Daniel J. Siegel, MD, father of interpersonal neurobiology, this non-physical entity is, “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” For our purposes, the important thing to note here is that the mind is something separate from the brain. 

A way of thinking of this is to equate the brain to a guidance system of an airplane and to think of the mind as the pilot. The mind, then, is the part that “looks on from a distance” and “evaluates and manipulates” the information that the “instruments” (brain) gives it. 

Did you notice the other marvelous aspect revealed by Dr. Seigel’s definition? The mind is relational. This means that the mind is not only in us…wait for it…it’s also between us! One person’s mind can both feel and regulate another’s. No, seriously. No woo-woo here – this is science! Oh! But there’s more!

Spirit

This seems to be a scary word to some people who can see no possible relation between spirit and science. Fear be gone! Spirit does indeed have religious and mystical aspects, but research is beginning to take notice of spirit as an integral part of what makes humans work neurologically as well.2

Think of spirit this way: It’s another non-physical part of us that makes us unique and pushes us to connect to that which is bigger than us, such as purpose, the human race, and/or the divine realm. In other words, it’s the accumulation of all that makes you inimitably and singularly you—and—it’s also within us and between us. Are you starting to see a theme here? 

Social connections

This fourth dimension may be a bit more straightforward than the other three. All the people we connect to and interact with on any kind of regular basis—Mom, Dad, big sis, your significant other, medical and other professionals, and even the barista at your favorite coffee shop—make up our social connections. And, as indicated above, they’re as much a part of you as your big toe and belly button. You are not fully you without them.

4D people with two brains

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Not too sciencey, right?

Did you notice the theme I alluded to above? The “self” does not exist in isolation. Not even the most introverted introvert can live their best life nor escape the effects of their connection to others. This will become clearer and more important as we proceed.

Volumes could be written on the social aspects of the self, but we’ll only hint at the depth of that in this article. For now, let’s keep our neuroscience hats on and hone in on the human brain, or to be more precise, our two brains.

“Two brains? Umm. What?”

That’s right. That three-pound organ between your ears can be split into two hemispheres with rather distinctive jobs. Hence, two brains!

Humor me. And remember, I’m speaking metaphorically here. There’s crossover between the two—making it less technically cut-and-dried than I describe here, but for our purposes, thinking in the terms I use will suffice. Let’s start by referring to the brains as “Lefty” and “Righty,” and take a look at each one.

Lefty 

Here in the West in particular, we tend to downright revere the left brain. The reason for this is that it’s the home of our logic, language, and linear thinking. If you can measure it or put it into comprehensible words, then you can thank the left brain for that. It’s also the place of our conscious awareness. Pretty cool, huh? 

There are problems, though. 

You knew that was coming, didn’t you?

It’s true that a lot goes on in the non-conscious brain, but as a general rule, we put way, way too much focus and weight on our conscious awareness. Research shows the frail awareness zone can only hold a very few things at any one time—anywhere from seven down to one.3 

Think about where you are right now. Your brain is processing the pressure on your bottom, the ambient temperature, sounds, smells, and sights. If you’re like me, teacup in hand, then you add tastes to it. On top of all that, you’re reading this. That’s about the maximum of what your little lefty can manage—and if you pay attention to your attention, you realize that out of all those things you’re processing, you consciously focus on only one at a time.

If we gave ourselves permission to live within the limits of our left brain, then they would not be the roadblocks they often seem to be. But, alas, we usually don’t. (That’s a whole other article.)

Righty 

Now for the much neglected, underdog of the brain: the right side. If left is logic, language, and linear, then the right side is holistic-creative, non-verbal, and random. This hemi’s ability to process information is near infinite when compared to the left side. 

Have you ever seen someone and thought to yourself, “I know that person…but I can’t remember their name or where I know them from!” You can credit the right side for remembering all the millions of bits of info about the person’s size, shape, smell, etc. Only the episodic, word-based fragments (left-brain fodder) are missing.  

Yup. You guessed it. There are troubles on this side as well. 

The right side can also be thought of as the “somatic/emotional side.” This means that the right side has a special hotline to the body and emotions—and it’s not logical or time bound!

Think about that. 

If it’s left unregulated by the stuffy, uber-proper left side, uptighty righty can wreak some havoc.

Two kinds of knowing

“Four-dimensional people with two brains. Okay. Uh. What on Earth does all this have to do with self-awareness?”

Rome, remember?

As we inch our way toward understanding self-awareness better, let’s have a little vocabulary lesson that will allow us to talk about the two brains in a practical way. 

Knowing

My tea is cold now. I know this because I can process the temperature and taste on my tongue, I can see and feel it as something happening in this moment, and I can tell you in words just how much I do not like cold tea. This activity is fueled by something called explicit (word-based, episodic) memory, which we can call “knowing.” Think of it as a primarily left-brain function, one in which we have significant access to through our conscious awareness and ability to attach words to it.

Noesis 

Feng-shui is a thing for me. I can’t concentrate or write if the environment is not “just right.” As I walked into this coffee shop today, I took stock of the shape, space, people placement, and ambiance and I just knew I could work here. This deep inner knowing is called “noesis.” Noesis comes from our conditioned implicit memory, and it’s more of a holistic, right-brain activity. Noesis is more than just a feeling or emotion—it’s a massive number crunch of a million bits of incoming input and emotion.

I hope you can see at this point that neither hemisphere nor type of knowing is “the best.” The truth is, we need both.

The mind as umpire

Now we can finally start to talk about self-awareness.

You now know that there’s a difference between awareness and attention, and that we must focus our attention to make good use of our awareness. But awareness of what? We’ve discussed the fact we’re four-part beings. Hence, we must attend to all four parts in order to have a full sense of self-awareness. 

In other words, self-awareness consists of body, mind, spirit, and social awareness. In addition to this, paying attention to each aspect in different ways at different times is the goal.

Let’s return to Jerilyn and Torrence for a minute to help with understanding. Remember how they were rather unhappy with each other? Our new friend, Jerilyn meandered through her day while always being completely caught up in mental ruminations about a fight she and Torrence had earlier in the day. The episode ended with both upset and not even remembering what caused the fallout in the first place.

We know Jerilyn (and you and I and everyone else) has multiple dimensions. To which of them was she attending? The truth? 

Only her brain—and at that, not very accurately.

Did she know what was going on in her body with full awareness? What about her spirit, or desire to connect and have meaning? Was that where her attention was? What about her impact socially? Did she seem to be noticing anything really accurate about the lady at the store or her partner? Think about it.

A few of the pieces

We may say that we already know about all of this attention and awareness and four-dimensional stuff, but let’s face it—most of us walk around as if we’re disconnected entities led by a left-leaning, lopsided brain. Jerilyn is an example of this. Not considering cause, effect, or social interplay, she basically lives in her ruminating left brain. She makes decisions based on this skewed process and the story hardly ever ends well.

We now know that we’ve been constructed not only to receive input from the outside (in our story, that is Torrence, primarily and the older lady, secondarily, who Jerilyn promptly ignored), but we can also receive feedback and input internally from our logical left brain as well as our near-limitless right brain, which we often tend to ignore. The key is to use all input to improve our sense and use of self-awareness.

If you want to learn more about this, join me for Part 3. In the interim, continue paying attention to the information coming from your body, (mind, spirit, and social connections will be a focus in future editions). Pick a few recent interactions that didn’t work out well and analyze them. You’ll see that you’re fairly attuned to the words and information thrown at you by your left brain. 

Spend some time now focusing on your right brain and your body. Notice the images in your head and physical sensations all over your body. See if you can guess what this input tells you. Add any new insights to the growing repertoire of knowledge you’ve gained from observing the difference between awareness and attention.

About the author

Hannah Smith, MA, LMHC, CGP, is the founder of Potential Finders Network. She is also an author, blogger, coach, consultant, international board certified group leader, and nationwide trainer from the Seattle area. She has studied and practiced extensively in neuroscience-informed clinical treatment, as well as personal and professional development, and she guest lectures in academic and clinical settings around the country. Her personal and professional experience in the United States and abroad has enabled her to develop multimodal, culturally competent, cutting-edge, and relevant training programs offered in an engaging presentation style.

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