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Dissociation and Human Consciousness

There is little agreement on what consciousness is or how to define it, but most reduce in some way to being aware of inner & external states. This reduces to two essential capacities that are related, self-awareness & theory of mind.  Self-awareness is the ability to distinguish the self from others & be reflexive, while theory of mind is the use of self-awareness to be able to infer the probable mental state of another based on personal experience or knowledge of a similar situation. Therefore, theory of mind presupposes self-awareness. However, no one is either fully self-awareness nor necessarily highly attuned to the minds of those around them. This is not just because they are ignorant but precisely because of the burden of these awarenesses. In fact, research on deception-detection suggests that people may not be particularly good at mindreading (Barnacz et al. 2009), but, I would argue, the fact that we demonstrate empathetic efforts goes a long way in social situations.  Signaling our willingness to cooperate, not our accuracy, may be what is truly important.

Evidence for this has come, for the past 40 years, from mirror self-recognition studies. Evolutionary pstchologist Gordon Gallup, Jr.¹ (1969) conducted the first experimental test of self-recognition by placing a painted dot out of the line of sight except by a mirror on various anesthetized, mirror-habituated primates.  Upon waking, only chimps, bonobos, and orangutans, among the non-human primates, have been able to pass what has been termed the "mirror test," which is the recognition that the image in the mirror is oneself & that one has some schputz in one's hair. Lower primates respond in a consistent agonistic way, engaging in approach/withdraw behavior with what appears to be a conspecific, then calling it a draw & giving up in seeming boredom. Gallup infers self-awareness from this test, pointing out that, barring blind people, individuals who lack or have impaired self-recognition, such as newborns, & people on the autism & schizophrenia spectrums, have corresponding degrees of self-awareness.

Interestingly, gorillas don't fit this pattern &, with the exception of three unique exceptions, fail to respond to the mirror image.  This is important because gorillas are phylogenetically intermediate between orangutans & chimps & genetically more closely related to both the Pan (which includes chimps & bonobos) & Homo genuses than to Pongo (orangs). The exceptions are three developmentally enriched gorillas raised in captivity.  Dan Povinelli, an anthropologist² in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, & John Cant, an anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico,  suggest this is because (1) self-recognition is not necessarily coupled with self-awareness but is probably a prerequisite, (2) self-recognition & self-awareness are neurologically expensive traits & will not be maintained if the benefits don't outweigh the costs, (3) self-recognition is the result of enhanced proprioceptive awareness that evolved in large-bodied, arboreal primates to safely navigate in 3-dimensional space (think of the meticulous quadrumous locomotion of orangutans high in a forest canopy); & (4) the selection pressures that favor proprioceptive awareness in other large-bodied non-human primates are relaxed in gorillas, which locomote mostly on the ground & have no natural predators (1995). However, the neural hardware still exists & can be developmentally activated in gorillas raised in enriched environments (like Koko).

The suggestion that self-awareness is expensive is largely inferential, based on the relative rarity of it across species & a cost-benefit analysis.  The benefits of self-awareness seem to be, in no particular order, the ability to groom oneself (except for hygiene-related behaviors, basically a social function), scenario-building or imagining potentialities in the abstract (Alexander 1989), being able to take pride in one's accomplishments and strive to better oneself (again, a social function), positive misperception of self (or self-deceptive enhance, which I'll get to more later), self-control (social, social, social), & theory of mind (which is rather important, so it's not exactly a straight-up cost-benefit tally).  However, I can think of about twice as many costs, including the capacity to self-isolate (damn self-awareness and my sense of missing out on things), paralysis of analysis (there are just too many conflicting choices and demands on my attention!), forecast inaccuracy (my wife says I'm not social enough, so I think she'll be pleased if I hang out with friends & watch football ALL WEEKEND LONG), self-aggrandizement/low self-esteem (the overweening self-critic never did anyone any good), resentment (toxic), egotism (ugh), envy (deadly sin, anyone?), & guilt/shame (the flipside of analysis paralysis).

I think all of these benefits are important, but the facilitation of theory of mind may have been the most significant driver of elaborated self-awareness. For the time being, we will just leave that as a speculation because the point I am making is that, though being socially oriented & aware seems to have driven the elaboration of self-awareness, it came with significant costs that are also psychological & social in nature. To manage these costs, I propose a third basic but underappreciated aspect of consciousness is what appears to be its functional limitation, which is the action of dissociation.

Transcendental Medication-AAA 2011 (shortened)

Dissociation is the partitioning of awareness (Lynn 2005).  Partitions can be restrictive, semi-restrictive, or permeable, permanent, semi-permanent, or temporary. The DSM (Diagnositic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the "gold standard" of mental disease & disorder in the United States, now near to being in its 5th edition) conceives of it as comprising absorption, depersonalization, & compartmentalization. I describe it using the office cubicles model of psyche.

These partitions are infinitely flexible psychologically, developmentally, & socioculturally. They are also both biological & conceptual in nature, as I will attempt to explain, but first let me give you a sense of their diversity. Rebecca Seligman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, who I had the pleasure to arrange to meet in 2010 by inviting her to be on a discussion panel I once organized, refers to a "dissociative family of experiences," which I find nicely encompasses what she & her postdoc adviser, psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer, have referred to as the "psychiatric-adaptive" and "anthropological-discursive" perspectives on dissociation (2008).

In the next part, I'll talk more about the concept of dissociation & how I've operationalized the concept in several studies that I have conducted or that are currently underway.


¹You'll soon note I talk about Gordon Gallup a fair amount due to the fact that I studied in his evolutionary psychology lab in graduate school. Though my discipline was anthropology, specifically biocultural anthropology, & my adviser was Dr. Lawrence Schell, I chose to take on the extra work of participating in Gordon's lab because it was the only way I could get the cognitive evolutionary training I was interested in at University at Albany. I ended up there after several false steps elsewhere & due to practical considerations. I was first admitted to the Evolutionary Anthropology program at Rutgers for grad school, where I was to work with Lee Cronk, Bob Trivers, & Helen Fisher, but they did not give me funding. I was commuting from Brooklyn to New Brunswick, NJ & couldn't handle it, so I dropped out. After a year in the Hunter College evening master's program in Anthropology, I took a year off when my triplet sons were born before being offered a teaching assistantship at University at Albany. I'd applied there as the only state school with an Anthropology program commutable from Poughkeepsie, NY, where we'd be moving to get help from family in raising 3 infants. I stumbled onto Gordon's lab by happenstance, after I'd been admitted to the Anthropology program, when John Beatty (see preface) suggested I look outside of the Anthropology Dept for what I'd lost in dropping out of Rutgers. I was elated to find the guy who had done the seminal mirror self-recognition studies there. I shot him an email & told him of my interests, & he invited me to join his lab without question.

²Dan actually prefers to just be considered a writer. While his degrees are in Anthropology, he works in a biology department & largely does laboratory research with chimpanzees. I met him several years ago when he came to the University of Alabama to give a lecture & asked him what he considers himself, & he simply said he considers himself a writer. He said that, while he certainly an invested researcher, his mind is equally pulled toward the community theater he acts in. He said that he had dismantled his primate lab because researchers have not learned anything new in a decade about primate cognition & that, with the immanent extinction of chimps & other great apes in the wild, more urgency should be shown to conservation than lab research at this time. Combining his thespian skills with his primatological research, Povinelli dispense with the typical Powerpoint lecture, brought audience members down to the stage, & had them help him act out the chimp experiments he'd conducted. It was one of the 2-3 best lectures I've ever seen, & it was a shame that it was one of our poorest attending. Incidentally, Dan is also an alum of Gordon Gallup. Though he is typically at odds with Gordon over the interpretation of mirror self-recognition, Gordon helped him set up his primate facility, & they maintain mutual admiration & communication.


matt j rosano
Matt J Rosano
Southeastern Louisiana University

Matt J. Rossano received his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California at Riverside in 1991. He is a Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, LA. He is the author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, released in June 2010 by Oxford Press. His interests include: Evolution and human nature, evolutionary psychology, consciousness, evolution of the mind/brain, religion and science, and evolution of religion.


Around 100,000  years before present(ybp), anatomically modern humans (AMH)(these are not the same as Neanderthals and other hominids at the time) went back to the place from whence they emigrated, Africa; however, their retreat did not last as they were expanding again into the Eurasian landmass again 60,000 ybp and showing evidence of a much more sophisticated social structure and developed levels of cognition. This might have been due to ecological conditions in Africa at the time that created an extinction environment for AMH. From this, a level of social complexity partly based in religion emerged.tobatoba

According to Stanley Ambrose, a professor at the University of Illinois, during this period of difficulty for AMH, there was an eruption that caused a 6-10 year volcanic winter followed by a 1000 year winter winter(an ice age). This served to bottleneck AMH’s population to about only 2000 individuals, which luckily is the closest humans have ever come to extinction. This problem set the stage for a series of developments for human cognition’s development into what it is today.

The Social Solution

Around 75,000 ybp, we see evidence of trade going on around Africa: stashes of beads and sets of tools are found together, and we know they have intrinsic value as the beads are all the same type and the tools have a sophistication that man should not have accomplished at this time. These tools were a “social response to ecological stress.” The eruption made it so that AMH had to band together and trade resources or risk extinction. This solution (social solution) remained a part of human interaction even after AMH escaped extinction and is a critical part of today’s horticulture society.

Another aide to the development of society was the usage of ritual: a rule-governed pattern of formalized, attention-demanding behavior. The main usage of ritual in mammals is to confront tense or awkward situations in a way that releases tension. It draws attention away from threatening cues and defensive responses and so creates conditions for extended social interaction. Ritual behavior is also the basis of many other social and cognitive skills and so no matter how few rituals were observed, the fact that they happened at all served as a keystone to the development of social bonds.

Origins of Modern Cognition

Archaeologists have suggested that modern cognition is based on the use of symbols to organize behavior. Put another way, symbols help us organize our society by having a set standard (think of the alphabet). The symbols have purely arbitrary value decided by the culture that uses them. The reason we are able to use these symbols as social cues is because of the increase in working memory during this period. We gained the ability to hold goal-relevant information while completing other tasks. This increased memory combined with the development of symbols, humans began to master the concept of shared intentionality, which is just a fancy way of saying we can understand what another person is doing or thinking and so we can create shared meanings and communicate.

This working memory was also extremely important in the establishment of more complex rituals as these rituals needed increasing levels of self-restraint. The ability to ignore an intuitive response to complete a ritual takes a level of mental fortitude that AMH developed.  Evidence shows that rituals in place to develop group trust and solidarity are the most demanding of self-control and focus. Three main types of social rituals were key in building group alliances and trust: trust building and reconciliation, initiation, and shamanistic.

trust fall
an example of a ritual that we use today where we have to hold back our inhibitions

Rituals of Trust-Building and Reconciliation: These types of rituals likely saw a rise in polarity as AMH started grouping up more and more. Individuals had to show that they could restrain their instinct when it came to interactions with the group to show that they were indeed members who embodied the group’s best interests. The individuals who could not inhibit these instincts were probably left to survive alone as outcasts.

Rituals of Initiation: Even today, over 70% of traditional societies have rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood. As society during this period become more and more complex, the initiation practices became more intense. The ability to have self-control during these rites is a hallmark of the increased working memory needed for symbolic thought.

Shamanistic Healing Rituals: Shamanism combined supernatural authority to social norm which led to increased within group cohesion. Groups that were bonded by these emotionally taxing rituals would more likely exhibit altruism during times of scarcity and this gave the group a fitness advantage over other hominids. These shamanistic rituals were also heavy on their usage of mind altering drugs ad most of the practices during the rituals served the gual of achieving an altered state of consciousness. This process of ritual healing shows evidence of being viable at the time for increasing survival rate and the rituals might have even played a roll in increasing working memory necessary for modern cognition with the mind altering drugs.

The Fortuitous Mutation

Stanford archaeologist Richard Klein’s theory on human development is that the difference between AMH  and other hominins was genetic mutations that restructured AMH’s brains in a way to conduce social interaction resulting in a cognitive advantage. In 1896, three researchers studied the process known as the Baldwin effect which provided a mechanism for allowing environmental phylogenic traits to become genetically expressed through processes of natural selection. Acquired traits do not necessarily affect the genes, but they might create an advantage in these individuals that could contribute to this gene becoming expressed in future generations. Complex cognitive skills could have emerged as a necessity of the environment and as that necessity persisted, the traits required for cognitive abilities were genetically expressed and become stabilized in the gene pool.

Baby Rituals

When we observe rituals in mammals, we can see all of the elements associated (attention-demanding, formalized, rule governed) in interactions between infants and adults. Within an hour of birth, human babies start imitating facial expressions indicating these reactions are more than just reflexes, they are genetically coded and expressed. Even in later infancy, we notice a pattern in mother-child interactions:

  1. Initiation- engage attention
  2. Mutual orientation- excitement calms and voices soothing
  3. Greeting- infant moves limbs, mother more animated
  4. Play Dialogue- take turns making sounds (protoconversation)
We see that this baby has learned the action, so why does she laugh every time we play peek-a-boo?

These elements show that there is a specific order followed, and even if this ritual is not used to confront an awkward situation, it teaches the baby the process of ritual behavior. Why does a baby laugh every single time you play peek-a-boo? It’s not like it has not leaned what is going on, it is part of the ritual of the game (you would be hard pressed to find a baby that doesn’t laugh at peek-a-boo).  These interactions with adults and especially mothers teach infants the critical skills of how to regulate emotions based on interactions, how to use social partners as cues for emotion and as a source of information, and how to use the ritual context to interpret a situation and the emotions attached to it.

The parents of AMH 70,000 years ago did not share this level of intricacy in parent-infant interactions, but ones that showed increased  levels of it were more likely to reproduce and this possibly became a part of genetic code through the Baldwinian process.

Unique Culture Produces Unique Cognition

After all of this, we only have one question: why us? There were other hominids like the Neanderthals that shared many features with us, but did not show this level of cognition. The only differences were the wide ranged trading patterns of AMH and supernatural beliefs associated with shamanistic rituals. Basically, increased social rituals were the only differences that allowed humans to develop cognition and developed highly complex social rituals because of this. The reason humans are so unique, no matter how corny it sounds, is because we worked in groups as a species due to survival needs.





Pia Nystrom
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate

Pia Nystrom and Pamela Ashmore are university professors, researchers, and best friends. They are also passionate animal lovers. Nystrom and Ashmore both received PhDs in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis where they met as graduate students. Nystrom now lectures across the Atlantic at the University of Sheffield in the UK, while Ashmore is an Anthropology department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Though they have lived in different continents since 1994, these two friends managed to write a book for undergraduates on their favorite subject, primates.

The Life of Primates

The Life of Primates (2008) gives the reader an in-depth yet straightforward review of nonhuman primate biology. This includes the social behaviors, environments, and cognitive processes of primates as well as basic physiology. The chapter we’ll be discussing is “The Primate Brain and Complex Behavior.” In this section, Nystrom and Ashmore cover a broad range of topics from they “why”s to the “how”s of primate brains and cognition.

Why study nonhuman primate cognition?

Kiri & Mobali of the Memphis Zoo

Because we ourselves are primates, the brains and behaviors of other apes and monkeys interest us and allow for interesting views of our own neurological evolution and psychology. Nonhuman primate cognition research is highly controversial-- especially in its interpretation. Many don’t believe that humans can ever truly understand the minds of other animals because we cannot experience their perspectives for ourselves. However, we continue with this research in order to answer both philosophical and evolutionary questions.

The philosophical questions relate to our desire to know our position in nature - how unique our minds are compared to other creatures. Those who seek answers to the evolutionary questions examine our closest extant relatives (bonobos, chimps, etc) while trying to understand the evolution of the human brain.

Early Research

Nonhuman primate research began in 1927 with Köhler’s chimp observations in the Canary Islands. He was the first to suggest that chimps were capable of insightful behaviors. Systematic research into primate cognition did not truly begin until the 1960’s, however, and even then most of that was done on captive primates. The biggest discoveries of this time period were from two field studies in Tanzania where the researchers showed the chimps frequently construct and use tools. Later research revealed that chimps have tool kits and that these kits are different regionally. This is more than Homo habilis can say with its identical tools across time and geography.

Brain Size


Though brain size usually correlates with complexity, the discovery of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia means this assumption must be reevaluated. H. floresiensis has a small brain case and stature (around the size of a modern chimp), yet it used tools which were much more advanced than those of chimps. This leads us to believe that the internal organization of the brain may be more important than its size. Still though, primates have larger brains than expected based on body size alone and are known to have more complex behaviors than other orders of animals.

Now the question is why did primates evolve such large brains? The brain is a metabolically expensive organ to run. There must have been a very strong selective pressure for large brains that outweighed the energetic cost.

There are several hypotheses for why primates have large brains. Primates with larger home ranges and which also eat fruit (a high energy food) have larger brains. They also seem to have the most efficient routes between food sources on their home ranges mapped out in their heads - this relates to the expensive tissue hypothesis. Sociality is another characteristic which correlates with brain size. Primates which live in large groups have complex interactions and can use “social tools” to achieve their own goals. For example, many primates use manipulation to gain access to food. This is the social intelligence hypothesis.


Mirror Test
Mirror Test

Researchers are also interested in whether nonhuman primates have theory of mind. However, it is very difficult to ascertain whether or not nonhuman primates understand another individual’s mental perspective. In order to learn more about nonhuman theory of mind, researchers have attempted to study an individuals awareness. If an organism has theory of mind, it is assumed to also have awareness. Though awareness is also a complex subject, it may studied a bit more easily than theory of mind. Awareness can be divided into two levels, self-recognition and self-attribution. Self-recognition is the ability to identify oneself apart from others. Self-attribution is when an individual aware of their own mental state and can use this to predict the actions of others.

The mirror test is the most often used test for self-recognition. Chimps, bonobos, and orangutans appear to recognize themselves in the mirror and use it to examine parts of their body they might not normally see. Gorillas do not react in this way and instead try to threaten the image. However, the famous captive gorilla Koko is said to routinely examine herself with a mirror. This may be because of her increased level of social stimulation. Gordon Gallup, the mirror test deviser, suggested that self-recognition could be an index for self-attribution.

Why do primates need to think?

The ability to understand others’ mental states can create more effective cooperation as well as social manipulation. Both of these lead to gains for the individual. Organisms which can differentiate between friendly and unfriendly interactions and intentions are better suited to realize when they are being manipulated or give them the means to manipulate. These abilities also potentially allow for the exchange of knowledge through observation or teaching.


Tool use has never been so adorable.
Tool use has never been so adorable.

As we learned in the Leary/Buttermore paper, tool use is a very large component of research on primate cognition. Primates are hand-feeders, meaning they use their hands for eating and essentially all grabbing activities. Hands are represented extensively in the sensory and motor areas of primate brains. While not all primates use tools, the grasping ability of the hand makes tools fairly useful in the primate world. Chimps and orangutans frequently use them, other species do not quite as much or at all.

Tools are not always used for food either - they can be used in displays and grooming as well. Chimps have been known to throw rocks at enemies and monkeys often dislodge branches to frighten away predators.

Not only are primates able to use tools, but they are also capable of making them. To do this requires forethought. They must have an idea of what the final product should look like and an understand of what materials to use to make that product. Chimps have also been known to make tools hours ahead of time - up to 14 hours of reaching the goal.

The “how”s of tool use in nonhuman primates are widely disputed. Capuchins seem to via trial and error, whereas with chimps it seems to be a mixture of emulation and perhaps intentional teaching.

While we may not ever truly understand the cognitive processes of nonhuman primates, we can learn a lot about our own evolutionary history from this research. There does not seem to be a distinct dividing line between our mental capacities and their own, especially when in a stimulating environment.


First, here's some kids being kids.

It shouldn't surprise you that we aren't born with the ability to recognize our own reflection. Self-recognition is a skill that can develop as early as 18 months in children. In their article, Self-Awareness, Social Intelligence and Schizophrenia, Gordon Gallup and his colleagues delve deep into just what it means to be able to identify yourself in a reflection.

So,  you're not a vampire. What else?

The evidence provided by Gallup and his colleagues strongly suggests that the ability to recognize yourself in a mirror is closely related to your ability to conceive yourself as an individual, and infer information about the mental states of other individuals. As a matter of fact, self-recognition typically develops in humans around the same time as primitive social intelligence. In other words, whenever you can recognize yourself, you can try and piece together what other people are thinking or feeling.

On the flip side...

Species that fail to self-identify show no evidence whatsoever that they can infer information about the mental states of other individuals. I'm sure at some point you've all seen a cat or dog look at its reflection in a mirror. Normally, dogs will behave as if their reflection is another dog, and may bark or growl at its own reflection. Cats, from my experience, totally fail to give a single fuck about their reflections.

Is that anot-OH look a floor.

How do we know anything else can self-identify?

Gallup et al. provides an experiment in his article that was done using chimpanzees. The chimps had mirrors placed in their housing, and were given several days to grow accustomed to them. At first, the chimps behaved as if there was another member of their species with them. but after several days, the chimps began to use the mirrors to look at their bodies and groom themselves in new ways. Eventually, the chimps were sedated, the mirrors were removed and they had red marks applied to their bodies in places that were not visible without the use of a mirror. When the chimps were awake, fed, and watered, and the mirrors were reintroduced. The chimps began to investigate the marks, and even smelled their fingers after touching them. Orangutans and bonobos have also demonstrated self-identification skills, while evidence for the fourth great ape, gorillas, is mostly negative.

Do you see what I see?

As I said before, there is a strongly suspected link between self-recognition and the ability to infer information about the mental states of others.

Nails on a chalkboard...

Does this image make you cringe just a little bit? If not, get help. But the fact that I expected this image to conjure up that ungodly noise in your mind is an example of me making a social inference. If the ability to self-identify and the ability to make inferences about others is as closely linked as many suspect, then we can suppose that species that cant self-identify are incapable of empathizing with other of their species. And we would seemingly be correct.

In 1997, Anil et al. observed the reaction of pigs when they were shown the slaughter of other pigs. Or, rather, they observed the lack of a reaction. Besides mild stress caused by the jostling of the handlers, the pigs showed absolutely no distress while watching the slaughter of their piggy comrades.


The Cortex is the cause.

The ability to self-recognize and mental state attribution (infer what others are thinking) is believed to be located in our frontal cortex.

Frontal Lobe, home of the Frontal Cortex. Shocker.

The right prefrontal cortex is considered the prime culprit for self recognition and mental state attribution. In a study by Keenan et al. subjects were asked to press one key if an image of their own face was shown, another if a friend's face was shown, and yet another if a stranger's face was shown. Now, many of you may have heard that the right side of the brain plays a larger role in the left side of the body. In fact, subjects were asked to press the keys first with their right hands, then with their left, and they identified their own face faster while using their left hands.

Self-recognition and mental health.

Schizophrenics will commonly react to their own reflection as if it were the reflection of a completely different person. In rare cases, some schizophrenics claim to see no reflection at all. Evidence suggests that a fascination with mirrors may be the precursor to schizophrenia, as many schizophrenics are extremely interested in mirrors and the images in them.


Many schizophrenics also struggle with the ability to identify what others are thinking or feeling. If a schizophrenic is told a joke where an assumption must be made about a mental state, they will have a very difficult time finding it humorous. Coincidentally or not, people with damage to their frontal cortex also display difficulty understanding these situations, as do children, whose brains have not fully developed yet. There is plenty of evidence now pointing to frontal lobe dysfunction as the cause of schizophrenia.

Putting it all together...

The abilities of self-recognition and mental state attribution obviously play an enormous role in our lives every day. If the key to these behaviors lies in our frontal cortex, as evidence suggests, there are many possibilities not only within the field of psychology but also medicine. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness, and the key to understanding it is within our grasp.