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"Self-Awareness" --New Insights into How Human Brain Constructs a Sense of Self




Self-awareness in humans is more complex, diffuse than previously thought August 22, 2012 in Neuroscience Enlarge Researchers at the University of Iowa studied the brain of a patient with rare, severe damage to three regions long considered integral to self-awareness in humans (insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and medial prefrontal cortex).

Based on the scans, the UI team believes self-awareness is a product of a diffuse patchwork of pathways in the brain rather than confined to specific areas. 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.

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," said 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. 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 said 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," said Philippi, now a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "He said, 'I am just a normal person with a bad memory.'"

Patient R also demonstrated self-agency, meaning the ability to perceive that an action is the consequence of one's own intention. When rating himself on personality measures collected over the course of a year, Patient R showed a stable ability to think about and perceive himself. However, his brain damage also affected his temporal lobes, causing severe amnesia that has disrupted his ability to update new memories into his "autobiographical self." Beyond this disruption, all other features of R's self-awareness remained fundamentally intact.

"Most people who meet R for the first time have no idea that anything is wrong with him," noted Rudrauf, a former assistant professor of neurology at the UI and now a research scientist at the INSERM Laboratory of Functional Imaging in France. "They see a normal-looking middle-aged man who walks, talks, listens, and acts no differently than the average person."

"According to previous research, this man should be a zombie," he added. "But as we have shown, he is certainly not one. Once you've had the chance to meet him, you immediately recognize that he is self-aware."

Patient R is a member of the UI's world-renowned Iowa Neurological Patient Registry, which was established in 1982 and has more than 500 active members with various forms of damage to one or more regions in the brain. The researchers had begun questioning the insular cortex's role in self-awareness in a 2009 study that showed that Patient R was able to feel his own heartbeat, a process termed "interoceptive awareness."

The UI researchers estimate that Patient R has ten percent of tissue remaining in his insula and one percent of tissue remaining in his anterior cingulate cortex. Some had seized upon the presence of tissue to question whether those regions were in fact being used for self-awareness. But neuroimaging results presented in the current study reveal that Patient R's remaining tissue is highly abnormal and largely disconnected from the rest of the brain.

"Here, we have a patient who is missing all the areas in the brain that are typically thought to be needed for self-awareness yet he remains self-aware," added co-corresponding author Justin Feinstein, who earned his doctorate at the UI in February. "Clearly, neuroscience is only beginning to understand how the human brain can generate a phenomenon as complex as self-awareness."

The Daily Galaxy via PLoS ONE and University of Iowa


Awareness is a constituent of consciousness that has elements like cosmic, collective and individual consciousness. Brain itself develops as part of the consciousness one is born with. Consciousness is entirely physical so as to get investigated through science in a complete manner. Neurologists observe it the best but many a things still alludes them, e.g. medically dead persons coming alive and even living a long healthy life thereafter, premonition, vision apparently beyond the confines of body of which brain is just an organ. Human beings have developed the concept of soul and mind and body basically runs due to these so-called non-biological entities!
Science is a professional activity that attempts to understand how the universe and objects within function. It tells us about 'how' and can not answer 'why' or the origin of things including the creation of the universe in an unambiguous way. We conjecture and gets half truths that need modification later on!

self awareness resides in every cell in the body. the cellular level.every cell literally stores memory power. the mind/body/cells hold the memory yarn. the trauma is stored in the area that was once traumatized. the stress accumalates in the cell an is remembered until the healing called forgiveness erradicates the memory completely

The state of pure consciousness during meditation is sometimes called "Self." The EEG pattern of this state trends towards a global, homogenous coherent alpha EEG covering wide areas of the brain. The more strongly this pattern shows up outside of meditation, the more likely the person is to report "Self" as a non-changing background state of non-judgemental watchful awareness, rather than as a set of disjoint beliefs, perceptions, goals, etc.
IOW, perhaps the above finding isn't so surprising after all.

A striking example of the kind of EEG associated with pure consciousness is found here. Note the global sine wave pattern that shows up briefly the entire brain. THis may merely be a measurement artifact or it might be a sign of the "fundamental frequency" of "Self'.

@ninth octave:'the memory yarn'...I like it!

What is described here could also be interpreted as artificial intelligence. With advanced hardware/software technologies, machines can mimic self-awareness, but do they really recognize their own existence? I believe not. Hence, how could it ever be possible to prove that another entity actually recognizes itself, but rather is simply demonstrating artificial intelligence in this area?

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