The Dawn of Awareness

woman matter and spirit

Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit. ~Carl Jung; CW 13; Paragraph 229.

Travel with me for a moment or two. Back…Back in time…even further back…to the dawn of the fullness of true self-awareness in our primitive ancestors.

What a moment it must have been when humans were able to finally know with certainty…”We are here–we exist.” Sentient human beings, at some point, were able to acknowledge, “I know that I am.” It seems likely that it was not possible to articulate this acknowledgement at first. The realization may have been simply a very rudimentary kind of “knowing.” It must have taken much longer to develop a means of expressing this fundamental acquisition. It is also likely that the earliest form of cognition was visual or composed mostly of mental images, and perhaps the initial apprehension of awareness consisted mostly of abstractions that had no practical means to be expressed except through gestures and actions which eventually drove the necessity of expressing them through the early forms of language.


Countless eons passed with no true appreciation of this fuller and more specific form of awareness or knowledge of existing as an individual, and as a larger social group or species. But when it finally appeared, it must have been astonishing to those who experienced it. Some initial form of it must have been percolating below the surface–protruding into the primitive mind. There was no formal oral language. Perhaps some rudimentary signalling or series of gestures appeared at first, which communicated urgent instinctual needs and desires. At some point, the first truly sentient humans became meaningfully self-aware. At that moment, I can only imagine how they must have opened their eyes one morning, and knew that something was completely different than the day before. It clearly must have been a gradual unfolding, not an instantaneous realization, but when it finally took hold, it began the journey toward self-realization until it eventually blossomed into modern consciousness. On that morning, the early Homo sapiens must have been awestruck, and may not have known what to do with it, or why it was there. Without language, it would be impossible to express the experience in a meaningful way. It may have been frightening in a way, even disturbing. Imagine yourself having an extraordinary experience or brand new sensation and NOT being able to ask yourself or another with words, “What is this strange sensation?” “What does it mean?”

(Photo : REUTERS/Nikola Solic )

As time progressed, the earliest individuals with this new capacity, may have begun to notice this same strange new awareness in others. Perhaps, a glance, a signal, which on a previous day would have naturally resulted in an instinctual response, at some point, saw a day when that instinctual response rose up, but was quieted, suddenly paused, or halted, or stifled. It must have been confusing, having a sense that what was happening had never happened before. Gradually, every experience which followed must have seemed, in an important way, like a new experience, unlike the others before it. The emotional response to such a radical alteration of their daily experience might have produced a degree of chaos initially, making them fearful to some degree. We can only imagine how the experience of self-awareness in each individual may have affected their interactions with others as they struggled to comprehend the ancient world. It may have been like waking up from a dream, suddenly realizing you’re awake. We all know that experience, when maybe we have a repetitious dream, one we’ve had many times, and it suddenly goes quiet. There’s a transitional moment or two when you awake and you’re startled, and you think to yourself, “My God…it was a dream,” or even, “What WAS that?…it felt so real.” For those ancient humans, it WAS real.

son age 4

This capacity to be aware of being aware, might very well have been the driving force behind the development of a more complex and grammatical language, beyond the practical necessities of communicating the day-to-day urgencies of life during those early epochs. Think of all the questions that must have come up, with no words and no one to answer them but themselves. No one to look to, no guidance, no reference books, no wise elder who had already been aware for many years–nothing could have prepared them for the acquisition of such a radical alteration of their daily existence. Try to imagine what it might have been like to experience those first days and nights with full self-awareness, when it truly all came together and was realized by the individual having that experience! When we think back to our earliest childhood memories, they are like little glimpses–fleeting moments where aspects of our experiences suddenly made sense. It must have been very much like that for those early humans, perhaps having been asleep and upon waking, able now to wonder what it was all about. All those moments when they had brief flickering episodes of awareness, now could have a fuller sense of a context within which to better understand the nature of their everyday experiences.


Imagine how compelling it must have been to finally be aware of a subjective experience, and how that might have pressed those early humans to want to EXPRESS and share this feeling, with no possibility at first of doing so except with non-verbal communication. Think about what it must have been like for them to have the realization, for example, of how every clear morning they would see the sun rise above the horizon, and perhaps, before awareness, they would point to it and usually make a sound or a gesture, without realizing what it was, and now, with awareness, it felt necessary to associate that brilliant, blazing, yellow-orange ball in the sky with the gesture or by uttering a sound, as if to indicate, “There it is again, look at it!” Attempting to communicate the sentiment of the idea, not the idea itself, but the feeling which arose within them, may have been the very vehicle for associating what they saw with the gesture or sound that they uttered. At some point, others in those social groups started making the same gesture or sound when they saw the sun in the morning, and whenever any individual had that experience, they also would repeat the sound, and eventually, through repetition, that concept became accepted and associated with that sound.


After many years of primitive associative activity, and the spread of humanity throughout the different regions of the world, different developmental achievements from the various social groups were acquired, shared, and assimilated into the local cultures. The instinctive usefulness of fundamental tasks which enabled the early humans to survive, with this new awareness, could be enhanced and expanded through a more complex cultural and social development. With the eventual creation of language, the ability to teach what had been learned to ensure the survival of their children gave the early humans a unique advantage over every other species. When, at last, they descended into what would become known as the Caves of Chauvet and Lascaux, the pictures that they drew of the animals became symbols of the animals that they encountered in the world. It took many thousands of years more for the very first pictographic languages to appear, but the groundwork had been established, and the beginnings of self-awareness that gave rise to the NEED for self-expression, altered the landscape of humanity forever.

The first sparks of consciousness in humans, which likely appeared in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens, eventually blossomed into fullness once the requisite components of human development reached the tipping point, probably during the Aurignacian epoch some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but was not immediately useful or practical in the way it is for modern humans in the 21st century. Many theorists today suggest that language was acquired and spread rapidly throughout the human population once it began to appear, and although a rudimentary form of subjective consciousness may not have required it in order to exist, it may very well have made its development essential in order for the fullness of the capacity to be self-aware to unfold.

–more to come–

10 thoughts on “The Dawn of Awareness

    1. It is a most compelling subject, to be sure, and while we do not have an abundance of fossil evidence from the earliest epochs of human development, when we combine what scientists and anthropologists have been able to determine from the evidence we DO have, with our increasing knowledge of human development over centuries, we can at least speculate and compose possible scenarios based on that knowledge. We can say with precision that we do possess a fairly specific nature as humans today, and, at some point, that nature came about from a precise developmental progress, the results of which are observed in modern humans today.

      My aim is to present my ideas, which are based on an earnest investigation of all that we have been able to determine thus far, and to encourage others to consider these important notions for themselves. We are the only sentient creatures we know of currently who can project themselves intellectually back into the past and to conjure possible futures as well. I have been patiently building my case here in earnest for five years now, and hope to continue to present articles which create interest in the subject.

      I appreciate your visit and your comment very much. I have been enjoying your poetry recently too, in particular “Rhyme of the Ocean,” and “Spring is Here.” The first evokes the “eternal lore” of the ocean, and the other reminds us of your talent with expressing profound ideas using your own “unique way of spreading love and happiness.”

      Kind regards…..John H.

    1. Jim,

      Nice to hear from you! I appreciate your thoughtful response and am glad for the opportunity to respond to an important aspect of this topic. The link you provided is not a surprising choice given your position on consciousness and self-awareness, and there isn’t anything in the Cambridge document that contradicts my position in the least. My emphasis and the general direction of my position are less concerned with the mechanisms of the brain specifically, but you may have misread what I was trying to accomplish or perhaps we simply just have two different ways of looking at the same thing.

      The findings of the Cambridge group you cited are not quite as unequivocal as they express, and in my opinion, they are fairly over-reaching. Most of the assertions about the brain activity and what happens when non-human animals are stimulated, rely upon conjecture and inference based on observed behavior. Non-human animals cannot report what they are feeling or experiencing, (and as they suggest, even some humans are also at a loss in this area) and in my view, any report of similar activity in what they describe as comparable regions of the animal brain, give no indication whatsoever about to what degree the non-human creatures are actually aware. While the neocortex may not be required for the brain of non-human animals to demonstrate similar responses to stimulus, it is absolutely required for several of the higher cognitive functions in humans, which are exclusively human.

      As reported on, “While the neocortex is smooth in rats and some other small mammals, it has deep grooves (sulci) and wrinkles (gyri) in primates and several other mammals. These folds serve to increase the area of the neocortex considerably. In humans it accounts for about 76% of the brain’s volume.” This simple fact alone equates to a powerful difference between any creature without a neocortex, and in humans it provides the greatest level of surface area of any other primate. While these scientists like to gloss over the importance of these differences, casually equating behavioral responses in animals with human “behaviors (which) are consistent with experienced feeling states,” I am left wondering how they could possibly know how similar behaviors naturally indicate similar “experienced feeling states,” especially given that humans are the only species that can not only be aware that they are aware, but can also express it unambiguously. We have a unique degree of functional consciousness, accompanied by a richly textured subjective experience, and we know this to be true unequivocally in ourselves. The same cannot be said about non-human animals, and while every living creature is alive and has a degree of awareness and conscious recognition of others, it is not equivalent to that same capacity in humans. There are numerous cognitive skills that humans possess, which are unequaled in non-human species, and the most telling phrase in the document you cited was when they described “near human-like levels of consciousness,” in parrots. That’s a lovely way of saying, “We have no idea if it’s the same at all.”

      I do not suppose that any one species on planet earth is better or more worthy of a degree of consciousness than another. Humans are not superior or more valuable as living creatures than any other, and all living things deserve our respect and protection. Even the most advanced primates and great apes of the world, seem remarkably similar to us in many ways, and I would never suggest that our capacities as humans are anything but DIFFERENT than the others. Still, to reduce the human species to just being more intelligent and able to manipulate symbols, really just isn’t supported by the facts, and my posting specifically describes my own speculation about what it might have been like for those early humans to finally be fully, unambiguously, and subjectively aware of their existence, in a way that no other species, however similar, can show.

      I’m not suggesting that my opinion trumps those of the Cambridge participants, but I found their claims in that document to be not only over-reaching, but very nearly unscientific in the degree of speculation and presumption it contains, and calling it a “Declaration On Consciousness,” seems misleading and most presumptuous of all to me. Consciousness is not simply about being awake and conscious. So long as our brains are nominally functional and operating normally, we wake up in the morning and have conscious experiences. Brain activity can account for many of the common everyday abilities and functions of each species, and depending on the cognitive and sensory capacities, intelligence levels, and natural endowments of each species, they are capable of an array of astonishing accomplishments, commensurate with their gifts. But (most) human beings are fully and unambiguously self-aware in a way and to a degree that no other species currently known has so clearly demonstrated, and while similar behavioral responses and brain architecture in other species allow us to infer a degree of consciousness and awareness, our level of cognitive skills and demonstrations of deliberate thought processes, made possible by the unique capacities of the human brain, reveal a degree of access to levels of consciousness that, as C.G.Jung suggested, “…illuminate the darkness of mere being.”

      Thanks for your careful review of my posting, and let me suggest to you a new book by David Gelernter called, “The Tides of Mind,” which, in the words of the review on Amazon, “…challenges the very notion of the mind as a machine―and not through empirical studies or “hard science” but by listening to our great poets and novelists, who have proven themselves as humanity’s most trusted guides to the subjective mind and inner self.”

      Kind regards….John H.

      1. You write:

        “The first sparks of consciousness in humans, which likely appeared in our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years before the appearance of Homo sapiens, eventually blossomed into fullness once the requisite components of human development reached the tipping point, probably during the Aurignacian epoch some 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, but was not immediately useful or practical in the way it is for modern humans in the 21st century. ”

        Are you saying no species before these ancient ancestors of us were conscious? None of them? And these ancestors really had no practical use for consciousness? Why would it have evolved if it didn’t provide any advantage?

        You write:

        “Imagine how compelling it must have been to finally be aware of a subjective experience, and how that might have pressed those early humans to want to EXPRESS and share this feeling, with no possibility at first of doing so except with non-verbal communication. ”

        In my view, you have quite a bit of “over-reaching” speculation (romanticization?) when you talk about what prehumans must have thought and felt. At least we can observe other animals whereas we will never be able to do that with our ancestors.

        We have no direct way of observing another’s consciousness whether they are other humans or other animals. We only have behavior and observation to go on.

        The neocortex may be just one way of realizing intelligence and self-awareness. Different structures evolved independently in birds.

      2. Hey Jim,

        Please accept my earnest appreciation for giving my post such a close reading. It isn’t often that I receive such thoughtful responses and even though we seem to have some important differences in our interpretations of the research you have cited, it’s still important to discuss these differences and I am glad to do so.

        The main difference between what I wrote and the Cambridge document is that I actually acknowledge that I am speculating; I express my interpretations as opinion, and my intention is to foster discussion, not make unequivocal declarations. I completely understand the urgency the scientists in the Cambridge group feel to be able to frame the discussion of consciousness into empirical terms. It is my opinion, however, that they seem almost desperate to silence opposing views by making “declarations” that eliminate any other possible explanation. Your own emphatic response seems to affirm that, from your point-of-view, it couldn’t possibly be true that humans are uniquely in possession of a degree of access to consciousness that no other species shares. I do not wish to refute your assertion in this regard, I only wish to express my disagreement with the conclusions that these Cambridge scientists have presented.

        I believe if you review my previous response you will see that I acknowledge that other species have a degree of consciousness, that there is a level of awareness in non-animal species, and that each makes good use of the capacities which they DO possess. My point has always been that our capacities and cognitive skills are DIFFERENT–that is to say–not the same. Birds do astonishing things with no neocortex, and brains generally will adapt and change to enhance the survival abilities, but there isn’t a single bird in the history of existence that has an equal capacity to humans in every respect. I also have acknowledged this in previous posts. Birds can do things no human can do, as do many other species of non-human creatures. Some species can do things that we can do, and some can’t. None of these facts changes the fact that humans are uniquely talented cognitively, and that our capacities are, at least at present, comprehensively unequaled in any other species.

        As to your other point, I suggested that the FULLNESS of awareness, the unequivocal and definitive realization in our human ancestors that they existed, provided no IMMEDIATE practical or distinct advantage, but obviously conferred a distinct advantage at some point. I suggest this because those early hominids prior to the emergence of Homo sapiens, by all accounts had a very similar brain physiology. The differences were small, but apparently even small differences can have significant impact when it comes to brains. Examination of skull architecture in Neanderthals show adequate structural features to support at least some ability to vocalize, but when compared to the early Homo sapiens, it appears that the differences were significantly in favor of the Homo sapiens.

        And while it is true that we can, at least, observe animal behavior, it is NOT so clear what we can infer from it when it comes to a “feeling state.” As you so rightly said, we can’t even really be sure about what is transpiring in the subjective experience of other humans. How these Cambridge folks can make such definitive declarations simply doesn’t hold up in my opinion. Behavior and observation are a limited means of determining what might represent equivalence in humans, and if the Cambridge group had phrased it in such a way as to SUGGEST that this MIGHT be so, it wouldn’t appear so presumptuous.

        It’s interesting to engage in a discussion of what conclusions or implications we may be able to posit regarding human self-awareness, as opposed to the awareness enjoyed by other non-human species, since we feel so confident in our own subjective awareness, but ultimately, we are only able to affirm our own subjective experience definitively, and to suggest that behavior and observation are adequate as a metric simply doesn’t hold up in my view.

        Regards….John H.

  1. Maybe we are really talking past each other.

    Certainly it is clear that we humans have abilities different from other species – in particular what I noted earlier about abilities in symbol manipulation. However, I am not sure at all that these additional abilities make us more conscious or more self-aware. I am not even sure it is possible to have a scale for such a thing.

    Consciousness is certainly dependent on a relatively small number of brain cells in the brain stem. Damage to these brain cells which make up a small part of the brain will produce coma even with a completely undamaged neocortex. See this from Wikipedia:

    “The reticular formation has projections to the thalamus and cerebral cortex that allow it to exert some control over which sensory signals reach the cerebrum and come to our conscious attention. It plays a central role in states of consciousness like alertness and sleep. Injury to the reticular formation can result in irreversible coma.”

    This part of the brain is very old in evolutionary terms and is also related to basic control of the body and integration of external stimuli. My view is that this is where the beginnings of consciousness arise, possibly as a sort of feedback process for body control. This would mean that the rudiments of consciousness would be found in almost every creature with a rudimentary brain and nervous system.

    1. We clearly have different views of what it means to possess consciousness, and what the full range of consciousness includes, and what can be implied by our very human version which is so different than all others. Your emphasis is temporal and empirical and my emphasis includes a much broader spectrum of consciousness.

      I refer you to my previous posting called, “In The Beginning,” where I outline the main points of my ideas, and how this broad spectrum reflects much more than simply talent with manipulating symbols.

      Whatever degree of consciousness and awareness other species enjoy, it is quite different from the human version, but I believe the differences are much more significant than you seem to think. The “beginnings of consciousness,” and the “rudiments of consciousness,” are another subject entirely. My posting was about how the fullness of human consciousness today, at some point, took hold in our ancient ancestors and I was encouraging the readers to imagine how it must have completely transformed the human landscape.

      Thanks again for sharing your interesting perspective…..John H.

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