Awareness of one’s own personality and identity, with associated thoughts and feelings, allows us to self-reflect, develop as individuals in a social context, and generate complex behaviors. However, the neural correlates of self-awareness remain poorly understood.
In contrast, we have a relatively good understanding of the neurocognitive basis of perceptual awareness (the awareness of events and objects in the external world), which is associated with the activity of the lateral frontoparietal association cortices. Apart from being dissociated from the brain correlates of perceptual awareness, the neural basis of self-awareness should also be differentiated from the processing of self-related information without awareness, for example, when we turn our head automatically when someone calls our name.
To pinpoint neural responses that are specific to self-awareness, we used the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) adaptation approach, which goes beyond spatial limitations of conventional functional-MRI, and the visual masking procedure, which enables a dissociation between aware and unaware processing of the same sensory stimulus.
We found that self-awareness was uniquely associated with the medial frontopolar-retrosplenial areas, whereas perceptual awareness and unaware self-processing with the lateral frontoparietal areas and the inferior temporal cortex, respectively. Thus, the brain basis of conceptual self-awareness is neuroanatomically distinct from the network mediating perceptual awareness or unaware processing of self-related information.
Tacikowski, P., Berger, C. C., Ehrsson, H. H. (2017). Dissociating the neural basis of conceptual self-awareness from perceptual awareness and unaware self-processing. Cerebral Cortex, 27: 3768-3781. PDF