What humans seem to have more then other animals is self-conciousness. That can mean two things. First I may be aware of my conciousness, or second I am aware of an 'image of myself' which differs from my peers. Some animals have self-conscious and recognize themselves in a mirror. Some kind of apes, dolphins, elephants, even crows.
Self-awareness goes hand in hand with certain features such as: playing together, humor, enhancing empathy in others, the idea being an other individual, more complex social interactions, the ability to imagine and the use of tools.
The more self-awareness, the better we can imagine the feelings of others. You may see Bonobo monkeys holding the hand of another monkey who is injured and licking off the blood. Self awareness comes along with making fun together. There are Makaka monkeys in India diving from a turf into a water basin just a we do. Making fool of each other or cheating is also an 'art' that is consistent with the level of self-awareness. The more self concious, the more we are able to relate a symbol (like a word) to a real object. After training Bonobo monkeys can remember - and point at - 500 symbols to make clear what they want.
The size of self-awareness is congruent with the extent we are able to mentalize, making an image of a "possible reality" that not yet exists. A crow is able to ' think' amd to make a connection between two sticks in order to remove a delicious nut form within a bottle.
The ability of self-reflection belongs to animals with self-awareness. They can be conscious of themselves, with an idea or representation about themselves. In self-reflection there is no object (in the outside world), the mind produces something that is perceived as an object such as an idea, a sensation, a dream, a memory, etc. It is then interpreted by the mind. That is called conceptualization. For example, thinking is a process of conceptualization as well as prediction, estimating what will happen. Another form of conceptualisation is projecting a (negative) future scenario including the worrys and fears. A concept may colorize and/or disturb reality through assumptions, beliefs and imagination. As our self-concept does.
This imaginary representation of ' how and what I am' is a private conversation with ourselves that focusses on the internal dialogue. The representation of ' me' consists of ideas, beliefs and a vision. With this mind-set judge ourselves and others. Subconsciously, we evaluate how others see us. Their opinions about us may confirm our self-esteem while other opinions might offend us because they are not in line with our self-image. According to the reactions of others we adjust our selfimage. Trying to keep a congruent view on our person we reconstruct our memory' s, erase what does not fit ' our person' and emphasize the memories that support it. So our self- conciousness is 'tricky business' if it comes to a mental image we perceive as 'our self'.
Imagine that a tree can think and has ideas about itself: "I'm a beautiful or ugly tree". Then there is something 'present' that can perceive itself as a tree. Which of the two is the tree? And now that tree can also "see" what (reflective) thoughts it has about itself and says to another tree: I should not think so negative about myself !
So first, the mind produces a concept (self-image) of which we say, "thats me" and then if has reflective (critical) thoughts about itself.
Question: Is the mind reflecting about his own existence or about his own imagination?
As long as we identify with that 'image in my mind' that we are about ourselves, we are constantly affected because the ideas that others have about me never meet my (ideal) self-image. And my own thoughts are always contradictory to my ideal image.
Did you ever feel tired trying to improve or defend this phantom "me."?
Psychology considers the 'self' as all the properties in which I am different from others.
Buddhism defines the Self as a mental (imaginairy) show that we consider ourself to be.
The 'real me' is the viewer (witness) that takes note of what appears in conciousness.
So who am I really? There is a filosophy about this apparent duality called Advaita (meaning 'not-two' in the Sanskrit). The idea is that - by realizing that we are just projecting a mental reality called me - we will come to realize the ' real me' who is beyond that show. This realisation will end the internal chaos and the (self-inflicted) suffering. Tibetan Buddhism speaks of the "non-conceptual state of mind" as a way to come back to reality and a clear mind. And find the essence of who we realy are.
Links about cognition and awareness
* ScienceForMonks, including "life and conciousness" by Jangchup Choedhen
* Definitions of consciousness in the documentary: "the wispering mind"