Know Thyself: The New Science of Self-Awareness

Author: Stephen M Fleming

Review by Andrew Parrock

In his book, Stephen Fleming, Head of the Metacognition Lab, University College London, aims to explain, clearly and concisely, the current state of scientific understanding of human self-awareness; he has succeeded.

Self-awareness, metacognition, is the ability to think about our own thinking. Most of us, if we try, can explain what we are doing and why we are doing it. The book has two parts;

The first explains the science of what self-awareness is and how it works, looking at the elements of self-awareness that humans share with other animals, and how those elements evolved from two essential abilities that animals with a brain need to navigate their environment and survive; the ability to keep track of uncertainty in the information coming from its environment, and the ability to monitor its actions so its body does what is intended. 

These elements of self-awareness interact with the social nature of humans, who evolved and survived in groups, requiring individuals to communicate with each other. This leads to humans, perhaps alone among the animals, being able to know what others are thinking, and what they are really thinking. The science shows where those two things happen in the brain; those areas overlap to a large extent, so when I am thinking about my thinking, I am using much the same ‘brain circuitry’ as when I am thinking about what someone else is thinking.

The second part examines how self-awareness is essential for many aspects of our lives; learning, decision-making, acquiring and teaching new skills, through to our sense of autonomy and responsibility for our own actions. Experiments show that levels of self-awareness vary between individuals, that people don’t use it most of the time. Given that self-awareness arises from activity in specific brain regions, illness, and our current mental state can and do negatively affect the degree of our self-awareness. On the other hand, properly designed feedback can increase self-awareness. Understanding how self-awareness works will be a vital part of addressing many of the social issues society faces today. Fleming has written a popular science book that succeeds in explaining the science in an understandable, thought-provoking way that conveys his huge enthusiasm and curiosity about how we are and the implications of this for our future. 

Book discussed 4 October 2022

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