Where do you think when you think of yourself?

No, not where ARE you when you think of yourself. Where does it happen? What part of the brain? This question has become very important to the world of cognitive neuroscience recently. We used to think of self-reflection as taking place only in the prefrontal cortex. This would mean that only animals with a well-developed prefrontal cortex would be capable of self-reflection. However, another brain area has recently been implicated in self-reflection, the insula.
The insula is hot in neuroscience right now. It’s a weird little bit of your brain, a bit of cortex that is actually INSIDE the rest of your cortex. We all know that the human brain is full of folds, known as sulci. One of the most obvious sulci is the lateral sulcus, located between the frontal lob and the termporal lobe, just above your ears:
lateral sulcus.png
In this picture, your face is on the left side of the screen. That bottom bulge which would occur around your ears is the temporal lobe, which is separated from the base of the brain by the lateral sulcus.
So what does this have to do with the insula? Well the insula is INSIDE the lateral sulcus. It’s very deep, and on a human brain you can actually pry it open pretty easily. Inside the lateral sulcus are these clear stripes of cortex, your insula.
insula.gif
There it is all pried apart so you can see it.
The insula has gotten a lot of attention recently. It first appeared on Sci’s radar when a study came out in which smokers with lesions of the anterior (front) insula suddenly lost all urge to smoke. It’s also known to be involved in social thinking. But now a new study has come out, showing that it also plays a role in self-reflection.
ResearchBlogging.org Modinos et al. “Activation of anterior insula during self-reflection” PLoS ONE, Feb. 2009.


Why is self-reflection important? Well, in social animals (like us), self-awareness, and thus self-reflection, are pretty critically important for doing things like determining your place in a social hierarchy. Not only that, they are important for differentiating yourself from your environment and from others around you.
To me, before I read this, differentiating yourself from your environment was just something that HAPPENED, you know? Of course I’m not my environment, or the people around me. I’m ME. But apparently there are some people who have a great deal of trouble differentiating themselves from others and their environment. This “impaired self-awareness” is one of the signs of psychosis, which is often seen in schizophrenia. So finding out where self-reflection takes place could give us places to look in people who have psychosis, which could give us targets for helping them out.
So let’s get to it.
One of the reasons I like this study, by the way, is because fMRI, however flawed as a technique, yields some truly awesome pics. I am lifting them gently from the paper and placing them in this post, and if PLoS ONE comes to get me, it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission, and I am so very, very sorry.
So what they did was take a person, and stick them in an MRI. They then had them think of three things:
1) Themselves. They had to take a test looking at short statements and choosing whether it described them or not. The statements were your basic personality test statements, like “I am a good friend”, “I often forget things”, etc.
2) Someone they knew. Same test, only they had to say whether the statement was true as it related to someone they knew.
3) Something random. This test was a list of facts, such as “you need water to live” or “spring comes after autumn” which the participants had to rate as true or false. They had this condition in there to rule out activation due to basic cognition and decision making.
So what did they find? It turned out that all three tasts activated basic areas of the brain for vision (seeing the test), decision making, and cognition. Lots of activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, the prefrontal cortex (especially the middle and superior frontal gyri).
journal.pone.0004618.g001(2).png
What you can see here is various areas activated by all three tasks. on the upper right in the back of the brain with a ton of activation in the occipital cortex, which is the area for primary visual processing. The upper left shoes little spots of activation in the middle frontal gyri, which is involved in decision making.
So we know what all three tasks activated. What was different about the self-reflection task?
fig2.png
That bottom brain slice is particular is just gorgeous. The cross-hairs indicate the anterior insula, which was the one major area of the brain which correlated only with self-reflection, not with reflection about someone else or with reflection on facts and decision making. They also found that the precuneus was only active during reflection on other people:
fig3.png
Another lovely picture, that. The yellow part near the rear of the brain shows the precuneus, activated only while the participants were thinking of other people, but not of facts or themselves. From this study, the authors primarily concluded that the anterior insula may play a role in the sense of self. This means that problems with the anterior insula could contribute to problems in people with psychosis, or other emotional or social problems. They also found some activation in the superior temporal gyrus (the area right next to the insula on the outside of the brain, which is an area that we believe to be important in social thinking.
.
The authors did bring up a couple of issues with this study, and I agree with most of them. The authors believe that the insult in particular relates to self-reflection rather than something like emotional processing, because they used a test that was not designed to cause emotional states (like looking at emotional pictures might have), though the personal statements still could have elicited some emotional response. However, the anterior insula has been implicated in emotional processing, and though they didn’t deliberately elicit emotion with their task, self-reflection will probably elicit some strong emotions. There’s probably no real way to control for that, though it’d be really cool to see a study on complacent self-reflection (“I’m SO awesome”) vs negative self-reflection (“I totally suck”). Not only that, such a study would be very useful in understanding of depression, a disorder characterized by excessive negative self-reflection.
I would also like to know if they specifically asked the participants to pick another person to think about that didn’t elicit emotion. When I am asked to think of someone I know, I will immediately think of someone that I am either close to, or totally despise, unless instructed otherwise, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I wonder if they could divide the responses based on how the participants felt about the person they were thinking of? Perhaps that will be the next study.
Finally, the authors noted that they didn’t control for social desirability in the self- and other- reflections. So basically, this means they didn’t control for whether or not people would be likely to lie or delude themselves in some of their answers. So maybe some different questions would be in order for the next study.
In general, though, this is a great study, and gives scientists new brain areas to look to when looking for problems with emotional processing and self-reflection. And now you know where in your brain you are, when you’re thinking about yourself.
Gemma Modinos, Johan Ormel, André Aleman (2009). Activation of Anterior Insula during Self-Reflection PLoS ONE, 4 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004618

15 Responses

  1. Nice review SciC – this is an aside post – this is the same Terry as the Addiction Cure. that went a bit wonky. I do read your stuff, and see the quality – I gave you flack because that wasn’t up to your usual standard – which you admitted, and made up for admirably. That did display the PCness of current science, though! Keep up the good work, particularly where you QUESTION results and findings! As to pain – we can quantify everything about pain – EXCEPT the person’s experience of it. Which is why I say to keep questioning. FAr too many thing we know the majority of what is to be learn, instead of looking at all we know, and saying “Holy &^%$, this was just a first ridge line of these mountains to cross!”
    Feel free to delete this – just wanted to express that I do like what you do, and that means I do disagree sometimes. That thread didn’t seem the right place to do it, and probably none of these are, regretfully…
    excellent responses, and keep plugging!

  2. No, not where ARE you when you think of yourself. Where does it happen? What part of the brain? This question has become very important to the world of cognitive neuroscience recently.

    And now you know where in your brain you are, when you’re thinking about yourself.

    Not this ridiculous fMRI phrenology shit again. This entire way of posing the question is conceptually incoherent, and highly unlikely to lead to experimental advances that give us insight into human consciousness.
    *You* are not “in your brain”, let alone in some specific anatomical locus.

  3. Very interesting. Am I correct that the two primary regions containing von Economo neurons are two of the regions identified by this study?
    Given that von Economo neurons are only found among the Great Apes (among primates) and that only the Great Apes appear to be able to recognize themselves in mirrors, I would really like to see the results of similar fMRI studies of various Great Apes performing investigations of themselves in mirrors, and other members of their social sets.

  4. ‘sup dawg i heard you like to think about yourself so i put a cortex in your cortex so you can think about yourself while you think about yourself

  5. So I guess when you smoke, you really are comforting yourself. Or holding your own hand. Or something.

  6. Interesting stuff. Though, let’s keep in mind that not all deviations from “intact sense of self as different from environment” are unhealthy.
    Certain types of meditation practice are oriented toward overcoming the particularization of self-as-separate, and some of these entail directing attention to the ongoing contents of one’s thoughts while maintaining a sense of detachment. It would be interesting to look at what’s going on in the brains of a) people who are practicing this technique for the first time and b) people who have practiced it for years. It would also be interesting to use these and other meditation procedures before a period of “thinking about self” and “thinking about others” to see what changes occur.
    .
    Conversely it would be interesting to look at what’s going on in the brains of sociopaths when they direct attention to self and to others. The problem being, sociopaths are notorious liars, so that factor would have to be offset by engaging their self-interest motivation. That could be done by convincing them, when they present for medical care of one kind or another, that they may have brain tumors, and that this is part of the diagnostic procedure. (Yes, your local human subject ethics committee might wince at the idea, but those rules might be just a bit looser in certain settings, such as prisons, where sociopaths are easily found….)
    .
    As for smokers, this may vary somewhat. As a pipe smoker I can report that the effects of relatively low-dose nicotine delivered to the bloodstream slowly (pipe tobacco is generally lower in bioavaialable nicotine than cigarette tobacco, and puffing slowly without inhaling delivers it more gradually), are primarily a) increased ability to focus attention, and b) a tendency to turn attention inward toward abstract objects of thought. The “ritual” aspects of pipe smoking tend to heighten awareness of the nonverbal senses, in a manner similar to that of contemplation of a sensory object such as a color or a sound that is not easily described in words. The stereotype of the pipe smoker as someone who spends a lot of time thinking, tends to be true; but the content of all that thinking is not particularly different from what one thinks about at other times. How to get that into a lab remains to be seen, since indoor smoking bans may preclude doing so, and a mere dose of nicotine by itself is an incorrect operationalization of the entire experience.
    .
    Last but not least, someone needs to factor for the potential influence of individuals’ belief systems. Subjects from individualistic cultures such as the USA, may produce radically different outcomes compared to subjects from a culture such as Japan where the values of harmony and mutuality are more important. And to further complicate the picture, each of these may differ substantially from what one sees in a “tribal” culture such as in Afghanistan, where the individual is considered a subset of the tribe, rather than the tribe being considered an outgrowth of its members. While we’re at it, it would be interesting to look at differences according to religion: not just religious vs. nonreligious, but monotheistic/polytheistic/pantheistic, and abstract religion (mysticism properly defined) vs. concrete religion (fundamentalism and scriptural literalism). Also, what will we note with atheists of the “pragmatic” variety (those who believe that life/the universe/and everything is/are inherently meaningless) vs. atheists of the “mystical” variety (those who believe that life/the universe/and everything is/are deeply meaningful but in a naturalistic way that does not involve belief in a deity)…?
    .
    At minimum it would be useful to ask the relevant questions of all subjects going into an experiment of this kind, and look for further correlations as the number of subjects in each relevant category increases sufficiently.
    .
    (And as for the trollish commenter who suggested that the brain has nothing to do with consciousness: 30 millligrams of psilocybin in a controlled setting says you’re wrong!)

  7. I’d like to see this region fMRI’d in Asperger’s/Autism and Psychopaths.
    Marked egocentricity with an inability to empathise with or facially recognise expressions in others – I’ve long considered those two particular disorders to be of anatomical/functional aetiology.

  8. It’s an interesting study and a great write-up, but after seeing the “pried apart” brain, I totally want a hand puppet.

  9. Quite neat. Has anyone repeated these MRIs with various common medications? I once had a bad experience with indomethacin, a common anti-inflammatory; after taking it for a few days, I started to feel a vague sense of fear, and the clear impression that the center of my consciousness had shifted a few inches to one side. Maybe I was right.

  10. Here’s the problem with this study as I see it, assuming that all of their stats are correct and not overly-inflated:
    Asking a person true or false questions about themselves is NOT self-reflection. It is tapping into mostly semantic memory. I realize that using this questioning method allows them tighter control, but these questions should have been combined with open-response questions in which the participant was asked to describe something about themselves. Maybe you can correct me, Sci, as to the types of questions they used but it seems as if they were too superficial in nature to be classified as self-reflection.
    I would be interested to see fMRI scans of responses to the questions “How would you describe yourself,” “How would you describe yourself to someone you have never met” and “How would someone else describe you” to see if there are differences in how the brain responds to each type of question.

  11. Certain types of meditation practice are oriented toward overcoming the particularization of self-as-separate, and some of these entail directing attention to the ongoing contents of one’s thoughts while maintaining a sense of detachment. It would be interesting to look at what’s going on in the brains of a) people who are practicing this technique for the first time and b) people who have practiced it for years. It would also be interesting to use these and other meditation procedures before a period of “thinking about self” and “thinking about others” to see what changes occur.

    g724, you may already know about this lab, but otherwise you may find it interesting (I had heard about the group about a year back via some article I was reading on neuro-plasticity and meditation)

  12. So, does spring come after autumn, or not? What about summer and winter?

  13. No, Comrade PhysioProf, fMRI is ADVANCED phrenology…

  14. Establishing oneself in a social hierarchy is the chief example of the critical importance of self-awareness?
    This is natural science doing social science. It’s dumbass functionalism where the theorists of telos is like a 14 year old boy with a pile of Playboy magazines. His own fantasies are propelled by what he regards as an accurate understanding of woman.

  15. Thank you for the interesting post!
    You might be interested in checking out a project initiated by the University of Chicago – Defining Wisdom. This project consists of 24 smaller funded academic projects aimed at exploring the meaning of “wisdom” from the perspective of different disciplines.
    Specifically, you might be interested in the academic discussions of the meaning of wisdom: http://wisdomresearch.org/forums/33.aspx
    – Ksenia

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