Looking backwards and forwards – is that what makes us human?

Hesitation might be our crowning achievement. nana untel

Understanding what is special, if anything, about the human brain is a scientific problem of such magnitude it has defied all manner of investigation for centuries.

And human consciousness, our experience of being in time, is something we cannot dissociate from the brain itself. We need to be awake and alert to have consciousness, and such states are measurable brain states.

We can study animal brains in invasive ways that are not ethically possible with humans, but no-one is sure whether a monkey has the same kind of experience with consciousness that we have.

It’s probably safe to assume a monkey or a domestic pet share some of the same aspects of human consciousness with us while they are alert and awake: they are aware of their surroundings, get hungry and can feel pain. Such animals can learn to adapt, can be taught new commands and tricks, and can fit into the routines of their environment.

We imagine they are intelligent just as we interpret other people’s interactions with us as being intelligent: a meeting of minds, so to speak.

But is there evidence that any non-human form of consciousness has a “mind”, can think like we do, can make sense of its own experience, or make plans? Most people would say that thinking requires some form of language to think with.

Michael D. Dunn

And while many animals, cetaceans or birds, are expressive in making signs or gestures in company, there is little evidence these creatures use the conventions of a learned language to talk privately to themselves in the way humans do.

But there are clear parallels. Such creatures are born capable of living entirely in the present moment, constantly reacting to threat or opportunity to survive with their kin, and so are humans. We share a similar genetic endowment to other highly-developed creatures, we have emotional texture to our lives, are aware of situations being new or familiar.

But there seems to be some added complexity to the human experience of consciousness that suggests we have a higher quality of consciousness, a richer consciousness, than these other creatures.

In suggesting what that the source of this deeper, richer consciousness might be, it’s helpful to think of two common scenarios:

1) The experience of having no idea what to do. In this situation, characterised by uncertainty, we don’t act – we simply watch and wait for further “inputs” to resolve the impasse.

Our expectation that the issue at hand will be resolved (as if by itself) is something we gain from life experience, and so is clearly related to the past. Sometimes it’s worth waiting around for something new to happen, other times not. Such uncertainty is very common.

We can refer to this experience – which involves us looking into our rear-vision mirror – as looking backward.

2) The experience of being confused about which path to take, when two or more paths are possible. In practice this scenario, characterised by confusion, could be: shall I take the bus to work, or walk because it’s sunny? We typically run through our possible future actions, one by one, to get the answer.

We can refer to this experience – which involves us looking ahead, as if through a windscreen – as looking forward.



The normal response to the looking backward scenario – where we have no idea what to do – is to start thinking about what might happen, using the language we have learned to imagine the possibilities playing out. This response is drawn from past experiences we have already made some sense of by putting them into words.

The normal response to the looking forward scenario – not knowing which path, from several, to take – is to imagine where each choice of action will lead us. This is a more pro-active stance, made more complicated the more choices there are.

Of course, both scenarios are marked by our hesitancy to act immediately. And by the fact they present us with problems we need to solve.

Looking forward or looking backward are stances we adopt, and the common name for such stance-taking is the Self. The Self is a capability made up of the two stances outlined above – it reminds us quickly what to do when we are either uncertain or confused.

Present imperfect

The present is entirely ephemeral if we immediately act to change our position in the world, but if we don’t for one reason or another, we learn either to look to the past or towards the future to inform our actions.

Out of hesitancy comes our sense of time and tense, and what comes out of subjective experience is the sense of Self, which we could refer to as the “case manager” of uncertainty or confusion.

The Self embodies our capability of looking backwards or forwards, implicitly placing the Self at “now” in the timeline of experience relative to an indefinite sense of what is already past and to whatever might play out in the future.

We develop these two new senses of perspective by thinking about them, putting the experiences themselves into words so that they become memorable events recorded in and of our lives.

And we can learn from these memorable events when similar situations arise (what last time we promptly rejected may be the winning course now). This is the “mental activity” we constantly and subjectively employ whenever we are lost for something to do. It gives rise to our unified sense of Self, which in turn leads to our sense of personal identity.


Problems are good

Human consciousness becomes enriched by actively managing problematic situations that cause us to hesitate to act.

The human brain is, I think, more specialised and more complex than the brains of other creatures – because of this, we are aware of more of the complexity of our place in the world.

We are aware that the world is constantly confronting us with problems we alone are capable of recognising. We learn to specialise our attention in two new ways that never occur for creatures that never hesitate to act.

We become adept at symbolising our situations in language. And we become adept at choosing paths by posing them as a contest to be evaluated, on one hand or the other. As humans we simply switch our attention to the looking forward or looking backward modes whenever we are challenged enough.

Most other creatures cannot recognise, or have no experience to know, when one should hesitate to act: they are never uncertain or confused, because they simply continue always to act to do something, and time simply moves on.

Human consciousness becomes enriched with a sense of Self, the choice of “observer” stance looking to the past or the future, and a developing capacity to think situations through, which develops with experience, catalysed by the common language we employ to usefully describe situations to ourselves.

All of our cognitive capabilities derive therefore from just two stereotyped ways of reacting to the over-complex world we face – complexity our fellow creatures either fail to see or never hesitate to care about.
Human Cognition: Higher Brain Function and the Science of Human Consciousness by Peter G Burton is available now.