Self-related information is by definition important to us and indeed the brain treats it as "high priority". For example, even in a noisy place, where to hear your friend you have to ignore other people talking, your brain could easily detect if someone had suddenly called your name. At which stage of the information processing hierarchy this preferential self-processing occurs? At the initial perceptual and unconscious stages or the semantic and conscious ones?
To answer this question, we designed a behavioral priming paradigm where the participants decided whether names, surnames, dates of birth, and nationality codes that were shown on a screen at the end of each trial (targets) were related to them or another person. Before each target, a prime was briefly presented that was either congruent (self–self or other–other) or incongruent (self–other or other–self) with the following target. The prime-target congruency was based either on perceptual features (e.g., own-name–own-name) or semantic features (e.g., own-name–own-surname). Conscious processing of primes was manipulated using a visual masking method. In half of the trials, the primes were immediately preceded and followed by visual masks (irrelevant "XYXYX" strings), which hindered conscious processing. In the other half of the trials, no mask was used, which made aware processing easy. We measured the degree of behavioral priming calculated as the difference between reaction times in the incongruent minus congruent trials.
We found that self-specific priming was (i) stronger in the perceptual than semantic trials; and (ii) stronger in the unmasked than masked trials, which indicates that the preferential access to self-concept occurs mainly at the perceptual and conscious stages of the information processing hierarchy.
Tacikowski, P., Ehrsson, H. H. (2016). Preferential processing of self-relevant stimuli occurs mainly at the perceptual and conscious stages of information processing. Consciousness and Cognition, 41: 139-149. PDF
Automaticity develops as a function of repetition - the more frequently a mental representation is activated, the more effortless this activation becomes. Because we encounter our name and face countless times during everyday life, accessing self-concept should be more effortless than accessing other representations.
To test the above claim, we used a cognitive interference paradigm. The study consisted of two sessions: easy and hard. During the easy session, the participants responded whether a name, surname, birthplace, or nationality code displayed on the screen referred to themselves or not. All stimuli were written in the lower or upper case letters, but the case size was irrelevant for the task at hand. In turn, during the hard session, the above task was accompanied by a letter case task (“Decide whether a name, surname, etc., refers to you or not, but only when words are written in the lowercase letters”). We reasoned that, if the processing of self-related information is largely effortless, then it should not interfere much with the additional letter-size task.
Indeed, we found that self-processing was related to less cognitive interference than other-processing, which suggests that accessing self-concept is cognitively easier than the processing of information about other people.
Tacikowski, P., T. Freiburghaus, T., Ehrsson, H. H. (2017). Goal-directed processing of self-relevant information is associated with less cognitive interference than the processing of information about other people. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 68: 93-100. PDF