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The ESP-A Map of Human Consciousness

Dividing consciousness into ego, self, persona, and awareness.

Key points

  • Consciousness can be divided into the four domains of the ego, primate self, persona, and awareness.
  • The ego is the self-conscious "I" that reflects and narrates.
  • The self is the primate portion that reacts to raw perceptual awareness with drives and feelings.
  • The persona is the self-conscious portion that manages public impressions.

This post invites you to consider your consciousness consisting of four different domains.

The first domain is the one that I am engaged with now. The talking part of your mind is reading this and thinking about what it means. This is the “I” part of your consciousness, which reflects on what is going on and narrates what is and ought to be, such as: “I am reading this post and wondering what it means.”

We will call this the “ego,” the “E” in the ESP-A map depicted below.2 The ego is a self-conscious, reflective loop that evolves as an interpreter that functions to justify your actions. It emerges from what we can call your primate “self,” which is the S in the model.

Your primate self is the embodied perspective you have on the world. Consider, for example, the last time you felt insecure or vulnerable or worried about what would happen, and you were anticipating pain or threat or loss or criticism. You might have even thought: “I wish I were not so stressed and vulnerable.” That sentence captures how the “ego-self” relationship is often framed.

In narrating what is going on, the ego is often making judgments or requests of the self. This framing of the ego guiding the self aligns very closely with Freud’s conception of the ego and the id as akin to the relationship between a rider and a horse. In 1932 Freud wrote:

One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often, in the relations between the ego and the id, we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.1

Now imagine saying to yourself, “I hope other people don’t know how anxious and vulnerable I am.” You might have this thought because you care about what other people think, you want to be valued in the world, and you don’t want others to see you as scared or weak or lacking confidence.

We manage our impressions with others through our persona, which is the “P” in the model. It refers to the way you attempt to put on a mask or play a role in a way that allows you to fit into the social arena and navigate your relations with others. Any time you attempt to consciously filter out information from people, which would include everything from putting a lock on your diary to closing your door before a sensitive conversation to having a private thought that you should not say publicly, you are filtering information that is in your ego-self space from the domain of the persona.

Finally, take a second and just be. In “just being,” let go of your beliefs, desires, drives, wishes, thoughts, and emotions. Simply sit and attend to what you experience in the raw. This is the field of pure awareness, which is the "A" in the model. It is the field of experience that simply presents itself to you. It is the magic of how the water of the brain turns into the wine of first-person subjective experience. This is your epistemological portal into the world and allows you to experience being as a kind of witness. This pure awareness is what the philosopher Rob Scott called “isness.” It requires no inference or analysis, or conjecture.

Gregg Henriques
The ESP-A Model
Source: Gregg Henriques

With these four domains of human consciousness identified, we can now do some cool things. First, each domain is in contact with the others. We can see an A to S to E to P connection.

Consider how pure awareness gets interpreted by a self. Going back to the example of feeling vulnerable, consider how you would react to someone who raised their voice at you while you were in that state. Very likely, your primate self would experience that tone as a threat. We can say there simply is the perceptual experience of a louder voice at one level. However, the primate self grabs that experience and feels it as a threat and places the tone in an emotional and motivational context. These feelings give meaning to the tone and prepare the body to defend, submit, or run away.

We can then say the ego comes on line and "grabs" the feelings of the self and interprets them. The ego has to decide if the feelings of fear, anger, or submission are justified in response to the shift in tone and overall context. While the primate self responds more to the immediate situation in that context, the ego is more aware of the persona and the longer-term implications of your actions in the social environment. So the ego's job is to interpret what is going on and find a justifiable path based on what the primate self is reacting to and based on the social demands that press on the persona.

In addition to clearly specifying the four domains of human consciousness, we can use the ESP-A model to clarify an important relationship between the meditative mindfulness practices of many Eastern traditions and the psychological mindfulness practices that inform modern psychotherapies. The meditative mindfulness practices center first and foremost on pure awareness and how to cultivate attention in that space.

As Sam Harris helpfully characterizes it, meditative mindfulness affords many benefits for individuals being able to step outside the normal stream of attachments, reactions, beliefs and see thoughts and feelings in a new light that affords many freedoms.

In contrast, most of my training as a psychotherapist in the humanistic, psychodynamic, and cognitive traditions has focused on the relations between the primate self and its drives and feelings, the ego, and the persona. Modern psychotherapy is about being mindful of the ESP relation and gives much less direct attention to pure awareness.

The point is that the ESP-A model affords us a clear and useful framework for bridging psychological and meditative mindfulness practices together in such a way that allows for us to see how they overlap, are different, and can productively complement one another.


1. "New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Lecture 31 : The Anatomy of the Mental Personality". 1932.

2. The ESP-A Model is an extension of the Updated Tripartite Model of Human Consciousness which is a key aspect of the Unified Theory of Knowledge. The primary extension is the explicit differentiation between the domain of awareness and the self. In the Updated Tripartite Model, this is called the "experiential self." However, some of the work I did with John Vervaeke on the self, as well as some of Rob Scott's work and others suggested that it would be beneficial to explicitly differentiate experiential awareness from the primate self.

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