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Who Are You? Exploring Where “Self” Lives in the Brain

Center for BrainHealth

Scientists recently conducted a review of literature positing a new way to quantify the “self.” Published in Trends in Neuroscience, the article is a departure from the self-introspection and personal narration typical of Freud. Their focus was on quantifying the self through neural activity in the brain. The review – co-authored by Dr. Xiaosi Gu, head of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Center for BrainHealth, and Dr. Jie Sui of the University of Bath – highlights study ndings related to changes in brain activation that occur when situations a ect a person’s own self and self-interest versus another person’s self and his or her self-interests.


There are many unanswered questions when it comes to quantifying how the brain computes ‘self’,” said Dr. Gu. “Better understanding this could lead to breakthroughs in psychiatric disorders that involve aberrant self-processing such as anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, major depression, and borderline personality disorder.
Citing studies that used quantitative measures of the self vs. others, a simple example looked at the differences in processing speed. When shown information related to strangers, friends and themselves, participants were able to process information and make decisions much more quickly when it related to themselves instead of others. Drs. Gu and Sui also cited studies in which areas of the brain associated with decision-making acted very differently in a mock investment situation depending on who and how much was at risk. Depending on whether the person was making his or her own investment or watching someone making their investments, researchers observed differences in the anterior cingulate cortex. Activity in another region of the brain, the insula cortex, correlated with the amount of the investment. For people with borderline personality disorder, insula activity was at compared to typical individuals when observing the other, but normal in the self-case. The opposite was true for people on the autism spectrum in the study. They showed normal activity in the other case and diminished activity in the self-case. Drs. Gu and Sui concluded, “Thus, the paradigms and models reviewed here could potentially provide valuable insights into the mechanisms of mental illness.”

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