Me, My Brain, and I
By Elliot Berkman
We all have a sense of “self”, a term that encompasses both who we think we are and our present moment experience. Philosophers and psychologists have pondered the nature of the self and our experience of it for centuries: What is it? What does it do? Does it even exist, or is it some kind of epiphenomenon? I’ll tell you straight off that we don’t yet and perhaps never will have satisfying answers to these questions. But psychologists using tools from neuroscience such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the self have added some interesting wrinkles to the discussion. My colleagues Jennifer Beer, Georg Northoff, Markus Quirin, and I presented some recent insights from neuropsychology about the self at the meeting last month of the Association for Psychological Science in San Francisco. What we’ve found are surprising overlaps between some self processes and unexpected divergences between others.
Dr. Beer presented studies about the neural underpinnings of one of the most interesting and pervasive aspects of our self-views: that they tend to be unrealistically positive. Two alternative possibilities might explain this effect. One is that we are motivated to see ourselves positively to bolster our self-esteem; the other is that our biased self-perceptions are instead due to the fact that snap judgments about our attributes are generally positive because thoughts about ourselves being good come to mind more easily than thoughts about ourselves being bad. These possibilities are difficult to disentangle, but Dr. Beer has shown that the neural network underlying flattering self-evaluations motivated by self-protection is distinct from the one underlying flattering self-evaluations made in the absence of a self-esteem attack. The networks share only one region, the orbitofrontal cortex, which engages with entirely different regions depending on whether or not self-esteem is threatened. These results are informative to the broader discussion about self-perception because they establish that there are multiple routes to positive biases.
Dr. Northoff discussed research from his lab exploring the functions of the brain during “resting state,” in the absence of specific external stimuli or a task. The fact that the resting brain is actually quite active, and moreover has a characteristic pattern of activation, has been known for over a decade now. But the meaning of this activity and whether or how it affects cognition is not yet understood. Dr. Northoff has found at least one such function of this resting state activity: facilitating self-consciousness. He and his colleagues leveraged a clever study paradigm based on the fact that resting state activity is more likely during eyes-closed compared to eyes-open states. Participants in their study had a significantly greater neural response in auditory cortex to hearing names during eyes-open compared to eyes-closed (“resting”) states, regardless of whether those names were familiar or not. This is not surprising in light of previous work on the systematic differences between the two states. However, there was no difference in auditory cortex response between open and closed states cortex when participants heard their own name, suggesting that participants were more prepared to hear their own name than non-self-related names during the eyes-closed (“resting”) state. He also presented data from patients with vegetative states. Despite their loss of consciousness, these patients’ brains nevertheless processed stimuli related to the self such as their name or autobiographical events differently from non-self information. Dr. Northoff therefore raised the question of whether there is an “unconscious self” hidden in our brain, with resting state activity that remains even when consciousness is lost. “The self is everywhere at any time” he concluded.
A line of research in Dr. Quirin’s lab answers a question related to both positive self-perceptions and self-consciousness: how do we maintain a clear distinction between our own, intrinsic goals and others’ extrinsic expectations of us, preventing what he calls “self-infiltration”? His studies (reported elsewhere; he was unable to attend the session) show that activity in the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) while thinking about self-chosen goals (vs. other-chosen goals) is related to a lower number of self-infiltrations and better self-esteem and emotion regulation. This area might thus play an important role in constituting a sense of self-determination, which requires (at least) both self-regulation and accurate introspection. Intriguingly, the right vmPFC is anatomically located between the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is critical for self-regulation, and the orbitofrontal cortex region that Dr. Beer implicates in adjusting for overly-positive self-perceptions, suggesting an interesting parallel between neural and psychological self-processing.
Together with my graduate students Jordan Livingston and Lauren Kahn, I’ve been trying to understand the point of intersection of two seemingly distinct parts of the self: knowledge of who we are and want to be (identity), and conscious experience of the present moment. After reviewing research literatures in social psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience, we formulated at least a partial answer. Identity influences our present moment experience by modulating the subjective value we place on immediate actions and decisions, which in turn has a powerful influence on how well we guide our behavior in a goal-directed manner. For example, a person who thinks of himself as a healthy person (i.e., healthfulness is part of his identity) will place higher present-moment value on health-relevant actions such as exercise, and, all else being equal, will have an easier time engaging in those behaviors compared to someone else who doesn’t identify with the concept of health. This theory is supported by threads of research in psychology about self-determination, self-regulation, and self-esteem, as well as by the meta-analytic finding that the neural systems involved in valuation and reward overlap considerably with those involved in self and identity. An intriguing idea that follows from this theory is that a core purpose of the identity aspect of the self may be to impart immediate, present-moment value to actions consistent with long-terms goals that would otherwise have very little immediate value.
As I warned you up front, we are still a long way from conclusive answers to big questions about the self, and I expect things will stay that way no matter how sophisticated our research methods get in psychology and neuroscience. Listening to my colleagues present these talks, I occasionally had the feeling that bringing neuroscience to bear on these questions might even be moving us in the wrong direction, toward more complexity, nuance, and interrelatedness. Each talk highlighted the interactions among multiple aspects of what we call “self” and, at times, blurred the hard lines that we draw between them. But, of course, that is exactly how we know when we’re making progress.