An iceberg universe

Image by Uwe Kils Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Image by Uwe Kils

Fat little fingers hold up the toy as she peers at her reflection, laughing at herself. That she is, at just fifteen months old, very self-aware is evident in the way she plays with her own and her family’s reflections in the big, night-darkened windows. It is evident too in her naming of people and creatures, differentiating them from herself and recognising their unique individuality. She has already learned who to turn to at any given moment to have her needs and desires met and twists her father round her tiny finger with no more than a smile. She knows her own mind, there is a real and distinct personality and a playful sense of humour developing and showing in her offering and withholding of kisses and objects… and in the very definite ‘no’ with which she has established both her right and her ability to make her own choices.

She kisses her reflection and passes the little toy mirror to her father, quite obviously expecting him to look. I wonder… does she think her image will still be there for him to see? Or does she realise that he will only see his own reflection?

Her language skills are still too limited to ask, so the question goes unanswered, but it is interesting…and delightful… to watch her emerge from the cocoon of babyhood and become a person. This infant Eve, whose hair matches my own baby locks perfectly and whose look of mischief mirrors certain treasured photographs, is bidding fair to become a force to be reckoned with. Watching her and sensing the dancing echoes of the future, I am glad I only had sons to raise…

But it left me wondering all the way home… when do humans become conscious of selfhood? How do we know? We can see and measure certain reactions…like the recognition of the distinction between object and reflection, for example. We can put an age to various calibrated steps that show self-awareness. But I got stuck on the word ‘show‘…

Just because we cannot find an understandable way to measure a demonstrable self-awareness, does that really mean that there is none? A coma patient, locked in an unmoving body may be unable to communicate the activity of the mind, yet we are beginning to realise that often that mind is active and conscious. Like the case of Rom Houben.  And, for a time, my own son. It is only now that our technology allows us to see and confirm this… it is no new phenomenon, only our methods are new.

The mirror test is the standard for assessing the awareness of the self. Very few other creatures have passed this test. Magpies pass it and are accredited with self awareness… even though they do not actually possess the bit of brain where it was supposed to reside… the neocortex. Dogs, on the other hand, fail and have officially no self awareness. I and millions of dog lovers would strongly disagree. So would my dog.

She is not…officially…self aware. But she does understand a ‘foreign’ language…mine… and chooses whether or not she wants to do as she is asked. She creates games and remembers them…and expects you to do so as well. She has her distinct tastes and preferences, feels and expresses emotion, including empathy, understands people very well and can communicate her needs and desires quite effectively. But her prime mode of communication is subtle and non-verbal, including everything from pointing with her eyes, to the rate of breath, her stance and facial expressions. But she has no self-consciousness… according to a vision-based test on a species for whom smell and hearing are the primary senses and far more acute than ours.

Maybe the tests we created nearly half a century ago, when our view of the world and its creatures was somewhat different and rather more limited, need to be reassessed…

Perhaps the definition itself is vague… or flawed…or just plain wrong…

How do we know that a newborn baby is not aware of its own being? Because it doesn’t have the tools to define and demonstrate that awareness in a manner we can understand? Because we can’t measure it? Is that really a sound basis for such a judgement?

If we were to accept that a thing cannot exist because we cannot see, measure or replicate it, then we would live in a poor universe indeed. Can we measure hope? Quantify empathy or dissect kindness? They are just as abstract as self awareness yet their results in the world are just as concrete.

We live in an iceberg universe, where most of our home, and even our understanding of ourselves, is still hidden from our view. In evolutionary terms we are little more than babes… exploring a room where the cupboards are too high for our infant hands to reach or our eyes to see.

I would like to think we can preserve a childlike sense of wonder at the magic and mystery we encounter every day without giving it a single thought… and see what still waits, unknown and undiscovered, beneath the surface of our current knowledge as an adventure to be embraced. If the library of creation is written in a language we cannot yet understand, the inability to comprehend should not make us dismiss what we find there as being without value or existence… it should only encourage us to learn how to read.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email:
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42 Responses to An iceberg universe

  1. I have thought about this a lot too. My answer would be that there’s no “universal law” about self-awareness. I think it’s unique to each child, their circumstances, DNA, and some other non-quantifiable “thing” that cannot be tested or entirely defined. But of course, that’s my opinion — hardly worth more than the paper on which it isn’t written.


  2. Miriam says:

    You’ve written a thought provoking post here Sue, one that I think about a lot. There is so much we don’t know or understand. And I can’t help but think of my poor mum who, after two failed brain operations and infections last year, has no ability to communicate and we have no idea what state her brain/mind is in and what she understands. It’s sad and confronting.


  3. adeleulnais says:

    What a wonderful post, Sue. It made me think a lot about developing a sense of self-awareness and I agree with you on the dog thing. Dante sees himself in the mirrored oven door and yes he can recognise himself and like Ani he has his own way of communicating. Cats are the same although there are subtle differences, as always with cats. I naturally reach out and question and its a gut feeling that makes me aware of the truth of something. We have only discovered the bottom of the mountain, it`s a long way to the top.


  4. Mary Smith says:

    A great, thought-provoking post, Sue.


  5. Great post. I suspect it’s just the tip of the iceberg.


  6. Gabriel Tonello says:

    Reblogged this on A Ciência nas Coisas.


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  10. Helen Jones says:

    I read this the other day and thought, how interesting! I’d never considered that a small child might think that their reflection stays in the mirror when they pass it on. And as for dogs not being self-aware – pshaw! (or a similar sound of derision) 🙂


  11. Deborah Jay says:

    Great analysis of a much disputed topic, Sue, that is surely ready, as you suggest, to be revisited with more open minds and a broader scope for applying parameters to our definition of ‘self-awareness’.
    And my dog agrees.


    • Sue Vincent says:

      Thanks, Deborah. There has to be a point where we realise we need to move forward with wider parameters for possibility, I feel.


      • Deborah Jay says:

        Sometimes it just takes someone to re-open a subject that’s stagnated for so long, and your arguments are most eloquent. Here’s hoping someone in the right field might take notice.


        • Sue Vincent says:

          There are better placed people than me who are asking the same questions. And others who are still refuting any idea of animal self-awareness or emotion. It is worth doing a bit of googling and reading some of the arguments… it is an eye-opener on shortsightedness in some cases!

          Liked by 1 person

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