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Machines Like Us

Self-awareness is more complex than previously thought

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Credit: Jens Langner, Wikimedia commons

Ancient Greek philosophers considered the ability to "know thyself" as the pinnacle of humanity. Now, thousands of years later, neuroscientists are trying to decipher precisely how the human brain constructs our sense of self. Self-awareness is defined as being aware of oneself, including one's traits, feelings, and behaviors. Neuroscientists have believed that three brain regions are critical for self-awareness: the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex.

However, a research team led by the University of Iowa has challenged this theory by showing that self-awareness is more a product of a diffuse patchwork of pathways in the brain—including other regions—rather than confined to specific areas.

Meet "Patient R"

The conclusions came from a rare opportunity to study a person with extensive brain damage to the three regions believed critical for self-awareness. The person, a 57-year-old, college-educated man known as "Patient R," passed all standard tests of self-awareness. He also displayed repeated self-recognition, both when looking in the mirror and when identifying himself in unaltered photographs taken during all periods of his life.

"What this research clearly shows is that self-awareness corresponds to a brain process that cannot be localized to a single region of the brain," says David Rudrauf, co-corresponding author of the paper, published online Aug. 22 in the journal PLoS ONE. "In all likelihood, self-awareness emerges from much more distributed interactions among networks of brain regions."

The authors believe the brainstem, thalamus, and posteromedial cortices play roles in self-awareness, as has been theorized.

Introspection and agency

The researchers observed that Patient R's behaviors and communication often reflected depth and self-insight. First author Carissa Philippi, who earned her doctorate in neuroscience at the UI in 2011, conducted a detailed self-awareness interview with Patient R and found he had a deep capacity for introspection, one of humans' most evolved features of self-awareness.

"During the interview, I asked him how he would describe himself to somebody," says Philippi, now a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "He said, 'I am just a normal person with a bad memory.'"