Neural substrate of self-awareness

Researchers (Philippi and others) have investigated a patient with extensive damage in a location that has been suggested as the source of self-awareness to evaluate that hypothesis. (see citation below). The patient, known as R, has bilateral damage to the insula, anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortices. Some believe these areas are essential for basic self-awareness. But there are other views too.


In order to help settle this question, the team did a very thorough imaging of the damage and gave the patient a battery of tests to establish the extent of his self-awareness. R had amnesia which eliminated much of his autobiographical self-awareness. He also was not aware of his own loss of a sense of smell. These limitations were due to damage outside the area being studied. But aside from these two limitations, his self-awareness was intact.


Here is in the paper a very clear description of the types of self-awareness they tested for and the tests used. Those of you that have an interest in the components of self-awareness would find this interesting, and can read the original. The gust is that they recognized three types of self-awareness: core (feelings of the body, elementary self-consciousness, personal agency, ownership of actions and sensory perceptions, self-recognition, sentience); extended (autobiography, self-concept using physical, affective and personality traits); introspective (introspection, reflection on own mental states, actions/consequences, social skills).


The results severely weaken the idea that the insula, anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortices are essential for self-awareness. The paper cites other evidence in keeping with their results. What are the alternatives as the authors see it?

By contrast, the hypothesis implicating brainstem nuclei in generating the ‘‘primordial feelings’’ essential to Core SA is entirely compatible with our findings (as R does not have brainstem damage), and is in keeping with the fact that selective damage to brainstem tegmentum has long been associated with impaired consciousness. Furthermore, this hypothesis is also consistent with the striking presence of core SA and basic emotional functioning found in children who are missing their cortex due to hydranencephaly.

Intact regions of R’s cerebral cortex, such as the posteromedial cortex (which includes the posterior cingulate, the precuneus, and the retrosplenial cortices) and the inferior parietal lobule, could constitute the critical substrate for preserved SA in R. Both of these areas are critical nodes of the Default Mode Network. Activity in the posteromedial cortex, in particular, has been consistently associated with consciousness. Of note, R had preserved functional connectivity within this region of the brain. Intracranial recordings have also associated the posteromedial cortex with self-referential processing. Moreover, Dastjerdi and colleagues found that intracranial electrodes placed near the retrosplenial cortices responded preferentially to autobiographical memory stimuli. These findings are consistent with neuropsychological research which has implicated the retrosplenial cortex in autobiographical memory retrieval. R’s intact retrieval of some autobiographical knowledge might be mediated in part by the retrosplenial cortices. More generally, our findings are compatible with hypotheses invoking distributed neural systems as a substrate for SA and its components.


To me this suggests a system of great antiquity that is based in the brain stem, passes through the mid-brain to the cortex, and is dispersed in the cortex. The same picture as can be seen in consciousness in general – driven by the brain stem, up to reticular formation, passing through the thalamus and involving much of the cortex. Why should awareness of self be much different from awareness of the rest of the world?


Sorry, I don’t know how this happened. The citation is copied from ReasearchBlogging is usually for posting there but does not work. Here is another link

Philippi CL, Feinstein JS, Khalsa SS, Damasio A, Tranel D, & et al (2012). Preserved Self-Awareness following Extensive Bilateral Brain Damage to the Insula, Anterior Cingulate, and Medial Prefrontal Cortices PLoS ONE, 7 (8) : 10.1371/journal.pone.0038413

Feeling of agency

Why is it so difficult for neuroscience to identify where our self-experience comes from? It seems to involve a number of processes: memory, emotion, perception, action. Knoblich and Sebanz review some work on self. (see citation)

Action has recently become a central topic in research addressing the sense of self because there is converging evidence that the ability to experience oneself as the cause of an action (‘self- agency’) might be the fundamental building block supporting the sense of self in general. In a recent article, Atsushi Sato and Asako Yasuda report a series of elegant and thought-provoking experiments in which they explored the role of prediction for the experience of agency.


Here in a nut-shell is the Sato Yasuda protocol:

At the beginning of each of Sato and Yasuda’s experiments, the participants acquired an arbitrary mapping between two actions (left and right button press) and two auditory consequences (high or low tone). Thus, they learned that their action consistently produced a particular auditory effect at a particular time. In the second phase, two factors were varied: the congruency of the auditory effect in relation to the acquired action-effect mapping and the temporal delay between action and effect. The tone following each action either corresponded to the earlier acquired mapping (congruent) or not (incongruent). The temporal delay between action and effect varied between 0 ms and 600 ms. Participants were told that the auditory effects could be the result of their own action or the experimenter’s action. Participants reported to which extent they felt the tone to be a consequence of their own action.


The results showed that the congruency between the action and its auditory effect, and the temporal delay contributed independently to the experience of agency. This is the pattern both when the subjects choose when to act and when they reacted to a stimuli. The experience of agency decreased with increased temporal lag.


There are a number of conclusions in the original paper:

The authors interpret these findings as evidence that the experience of agency depends on a comparison between the predicted and the actual sensory consequences of an action. This is in line with the internal model theory of motor control, which postulates that for each action that is executed a prediction of its sensory consequences is generated. This prediction is compared with the actual consequences of an action. The larger the discrepancy the less likely it is that one experiences oneself as causing the action.


The feeling of agency was affected whether the action was freely chosen or performed in reaction to an external signal but the effects of the temporal delay were more pronounced when actions were freely chosen.

This raises an interesting possibility: in reactive tasks actors might completely lose the experience of agency when there is a long delay between action and effect, whereas in ‘active’ tasks the experience of agency is preserved to a considerable extent. … Using this clever technique the authors were able to demonstrate that the congruency between action and effect and the delay between them had an effect on the experience of agency both for intended and for erroneous actions. This result supports the authors’ assumption that the experience of agency depends on the discrepancy between predicted and actual sensory consequences, regardless of whether an action is intended or is a mistake. However, an additional result qualifies this interpretation: when there was no temporal delay, the experience of agency was less intense for erroneous actions than for intended actions. Thus, the full-fledged experience of agency requires an action to be intended and its effects to be both congruent and temporally contingent (with prediction).


The reviewers point out that there are other theories that fit the results.

Some researchers in the field of voluntary action postulate that the sense of agency does not rely on predictive mechanisms, but on a post-hoc evaluation of performed actions. In particular, Wegner has proposed that the ‘illusionary’ feeling of causing an action arises based on priority (thought precedes action), consistency (thought consistent with action), and exclusivity (no alternative causes). In Sato and Yasuda’s experiments priority was always given, because an intention to act preceded the consequence. Exclusivity was never given, because participants believed that another agent could cause the perceived action consequences. Consistency was manipulated in different ways. It was absent or reduced when the action effect was incongruent, when there was a temporal delay between action and effect, and when an erroneous action was made. ..


A further explanation for experienced agency for unintentional actions is suggested by recent studies on error monitoring (Yordonova, Van Schie). It is well known that after an erroneous action is selected internal monitoring mechanisms signal that one has committed an error. Such error signals are based on the detection of a conflict that occurred while choosing between several action alternatives rather than on the comparison between the predicted and actual consequences of a specific action selected for

execution. Agency for erroneous actions could be experienced because an error-monitoring signal is used to readjust the system. The readjustment could serve as a direct indication of agency, or it could influence post-hoc evaluations of performed actions. ..


In addition to studies using explicit judgments of agency at least two further lines of research have used implicit perceptual measures. Haggard and his colleagues have

demonstrated that an action and its effect are perceived as being closer in time when the consequence is intended. Blakemore and collaborators have shown that the same sensation is experienced as less intense when arising from a self-performed action than when arising

from an other-performed action. It is not yet clear whether such changes in sensation and perception are caused by the same mechanisms that inform explicit judgments of agency.


Are these ideas contradictory? I believe not. The prediction and the error-monitoring mechanisms may (I think probably) are the same. And this predictive error system would be an important part of Wegner’s theory.

Knoblich, G., & Sebanz, N. (2005). Agency in the face of error Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9 (6), 259-261 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2005.04.006

Sato, A., & Yasuda, A. (2005). Illusion of sense of self-agency: discrepancy between the predicted and actual sensory consequences of actions modulates the sense of self-agency, but not the sense of self-ownership Cognition, 94 (3), 241-255 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2004.04.003

Possible functions of conciousness 10 – being oneself

Now we come to the most confusing part of possibilities of how consciousness may be useful – self. Of course consciousness does not give us our unique existence. The continuity of the organization of our physical bodies from conception to death is what defines our existence as organisms. Our awareness of our existence is just that, awareness, and not what brings about our existence.


Consciousness to be useful has to include the whole of ourselves in the model of the world. We have to model ourselves. What would be the use of the slight prediction of the conscious ‘now’ if it did not include predictions of our own movements? What use would be memories that did not include our part of the scene? So we have a model of ourselves (of dubious accuracy) and that model has continuity through our episodic memory as an autobiographical narrative. But does the conscious self have any use beyond completing the working model of the world? Is there any function of consciousness that I am sitting in a chair that is different from the consciousness of the chair I am sitting in? If there is a difference it is likely to be centered on ToM, qualia or communication.


The structure that we use to model ourselves is probably useful to model others. Theory of Mind (or ToM as it is usually written) is part of many explanations of how we interact with others. It ascribes to others that same components and relationships that we use to model our own actions. For example, an idea like guilt is a feeling we have when they feel we are responsible for a ‘bad’ thing. In our model of ourselves ‘guilt’, ‘responsibility ‘and ‘bad’ become real things. We can then see evidence of these sorts of element of ToM in the actions of others. This projection of our model of ourselves onto others allows us to predict their behaviour and it allow us to make decision on how dangerous or helpful another person may be. Being a social animal, this is more then useful; it is almost necessary to survive in society. We seem to come into the world with the machinery to construct this model of our own mind. The model is extremely useful but not very accurate. Many problems arose, especially in philosophy and psychology, because this model was taken as accurate outside the everyday use it was evolved to satisfy. If we need to delve deeper into the nature of thought we need to avoid trusting introspection and rely to experiment. Introspection can only show us the ToM model of our thoughts. There is no direct knowledge of ourselves or anything else – Get use to it!


The elements and relationships of ToM are, however, interesting and some of them are somewhat valid. If not than how would they be able to make predictions of our and other’s actions. Take what is variously called someone’s personality, character or nature – we see a vague pattern to an individual’s way of living. There is no doubt that we have patterns and that we get to know people in the sense that we understand their patterns of behaviour. Experts keep making new lists of ‘types’, trying to tie down these patterns. Ordinary people accumulate archetypes in their concepts. I personally think that there will never be a completely satisfactory set of types or archetypes, because we are too individual. But we can have a pretty good set.


Although we know that there are problems with an unchanging self such as phantom limbs, out of body experiences and a long list of other oddities, we still feel there is a core, stable self. If we see things and hear things then there must be a self that is seeing and hearing. If we remember things then there must be a rememberer remembering their past. So the very vividness of our experiences seems to make a core and permanent self indispensable. The self is not as real as it seems, just like everything else about consciousness, but is useful.


This question of the vividness of experience is extremely important to many philosophers. We all work on the assumption that the qualia of our experience is very similar to others but not identical. We do not know for sure but then there is nothing that we know for sure. In this context a paper by Ramachandran and Hirstein (citation below) is interesting. Here is the abstract:

Neurological syndromes in which consciousness seems to malfunction, such as temporal lobe epilepsy, visual scotomas, Charles Bonnet syndrome, and synesthesia offer valuable clues about the normal functions of consciousness and `qualia’. An investigation into these syndromes reveals, we argue, that qualia are different from other brain states in that they possess three functional characteristics, which we state in the form of `three laws of qualia’ based on a loose analogy with Newton’s three laws of classical mechanics. First, they are irrevocable: I cannot simply decide to start seeing the sunset as green, or feel pain as if it were an itch; second, qualia do not always produce the same behaviour: given a set of qualia, we can choose from a potentially infinite set of possible behaviours to execute; and third, qualia endure in short-term memory, as opposed to non-conscious brain states involved in the on-line guidance of behaviour in real time. We suggest that qualia have evolved these and other attributes (e.g. they are `filled in’) because of their role in facilitating non-automatic, decision-based action. We also suggest that the apparent epistemic barrier to knowing what qualia another person is experiencing can be overcome simply by using a `bridge’ of neurons; and we offer a hypothesis about the relation between qualia and one’s sense of self.

And the hypothesis:

One way to approach the question of how our account of qualia relates to the question of the self is to ask from a scientific point of view why something like filling in of the blind spot with qualia-laden representations occurs. … the line of reasoning should run: ‘If qualia are filled in, they are filled in for something.’ … Now, what is the ‘something’ here? There exists in certain branches of psychology the notion of an executive, or a control process. These processes are generally taken to be frontal, or prefrontal, but we would like to suggest that the something which qualia are filled in for is a sort of executive process, but a limbic one, rather than a frontal one. This would be a process involved in connecting motivation and emotion with the choice of actions to perform, based on a certain definite incoming set of qualia — very much the sort of thing which the self was traditionally supposed to do.


For humans there is an added usefulness to the conscious self. The self can talk to itself. Words can control the focus of attention so one part of the brain can influence other parts with the spotlight of attention by using language in the stream of consciousness. The internal conversation also is passing through working memory and this is a way to make serial journeys through ideas and concepts. But we have already supposed this to happen (see discussion of working memory and of broadcasting across the brain) – what is added with the verbal conversation of the self with the self? Language brings a new class of objects into consciousness. People can manipulate in consciousness/working memory visual objects, sound objects, movement objects and so on through all the channels of sensory input. But verbal objects, words, open another window of non-sensory objects like justice, education, naval, magnificent.


So the self is useful in understanding others, communicating within the brain and it also helps to explain qualia (although I wonder if qualia require an explanation and whether self is a suitable one – many people think otherwise).


There is only the final one of this series left to come. Here are links to the previous ones:

Possible functions of consciousness 1 – leading edge of memory

Possible functions of consciousness 2 – gate to meaning

Possible functions of consciousness 3 – working memory

Possible functions of consciousness 4 – place to imagine

Possible functions of consciousness 5 – create ‘now’

Possible functions of consciousness 6 – presence ‘here’

Possible functions of consciousness 7 – attention on the significant

Possible functions of consciousness 8 – broadcasting waves

Possible functions of consciousness 9 – marking agency

V.S. Ramachandran and W. Hirstein (1997). Three Laws of Qualia: What Neurology Tells Us about the Biological functions of Consciousness, Qualia and the Self Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (5-6), 429-458

Losing self-awareness

The New Scientist has a article by Giai Vince (here) on research by Ilan Goldberg’s group on the lost of self awareness in some circumstances.

While people were being scanned with fMRI they were asked to make an identification of whether there was an animal on a card as it was shown. The test was done three times: slowly, quickly, and with an indication of emotional response to the card rather than the presence of an animal. The test was also done with musical clip identifying if there was a trumpet (slow and fast) and emotional reaction.

Goldberg found that when the sensory stimulus was shown slowly, and when a personal emotional response was required, the volunteers showed activity in the superfrontal gyrus – the brain region associated with self-awareness-related function.

But when the card flipping and musical sequences were rapid, there was no activity in the superfrontal gyrus, despite activity in the sensory cortex and related structures.

“The regions of the brain involved in introspection and sensory perception are completely segregated, although well connected,” says Goldberg, “and when the brain needs to divert all its resources to carry out a difficult task, the self-related cortex is inhibited.”

This seems, to my mind, a different cause for losing self-awareness then that which comes from very high levels of skill in a Zen-like activity or from some types of mediation. So we have at least three ways to lose self awareness: too busy for introspection, so skilled that thinking interferes with performance, having learned how to steer attention. Probably there are drugs that also eliminate self awareness.

Is Buddhism compatible with neuroscience?

David Weisman in Seed Magazine (here) has an article on the relationship of neuroscience and Buddhism. He has recently been surprised to find that they “do not appear to profoundly contradict.”

…They (Buddhists) believe in an impermanent and illusory self made of shifting parts. They’ve even come up with language to address the problem between perception and belief. Their word for self is anatta, which is usually translated as ‘non self.’ One might try to refer to the self, but the word cleverly reminds one’s self that there is no such thing.

When considering a Buddhist contemplating his soul, one is immediately struck by a disconnect between religious teaching and perception. While meditating in the temple, the self is an illusion. But when the Buddhist goes shopping he feels like we all do: unified, in control, and unchanged from moment to moment. The way things feel becomes suspect. And that’s pretty close to what neurologists deal with every day…

Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree…

I don’t mean to dismiss or gloss over the areas where Buddhism and neuroscience diverge. Some Buddhist dogmas deviate from what we know about the brain. Buddhism posits an immaterial thing that survives the brain’s death and is reincarnated…

Like other religions there are a number of types of Buddhism and they vary a great deal in their ideas and sophistication. There are Buddhists who welcome the findings of neuroscience and I am sure there are many who don’t.

Reincarnation is not an idea that neuroscience embraces. It has been inherited from Hinduism by all the eastern religions that grew out of early Hinduism: modern Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Falun Gong etc. Buddhism did not develop the idea of reincarnation – they just didn’t reject it. It is not sought. Like in Buddhisms cousin religions, the ideal that is sought is escape from reincarnation to a state of nirvana. Nirvana is not a type of heaven but instead it is a dissolving of self, time, space in an infinite unity.

Power of faces

Much of what we know of perception has come from studying illusions. Finding situations were the processes reveal themselves in their ‘mistakes’ give clues to how those processes work under ordinary conditions. Of course, our sensory processes have not actually made a mistake; we have misled them.A new illusion is a new departure because it added the specialized perception of faces to visual effects.

Giovanni Caputo from the University of Urbino has developed an experimental setup involving an observer staring for a long time at their face in the mirror under low light conditions, low enough to weaken colour perception. By a minute of fixed staring the face started to change. By 10 minutes, the subjects had seen:

“(a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%). ”

You will notice that these percentages sum to more that 100% and so the images in the mirror may have gone through more that one transformation.

Under this situation of prolonged staring at a central fixation, the perception of an object is expected to get weaker or vanish. This is not what happens with faces – in situations were an object should disappear, a face does not but instead is free to become another face. Here is another piece of evidence that perception of faces is very special and not like seeing other things. My way of looking at this illusion is that the object ‘face’ remains in place but the attributes bound to that face disappear in the prolonged fixed staring. Other attributes can then take the place of the original ones.

Interestingly the face in the mirror also loses its identification with the subject’s self and becomes a vision of another. Only the face remains – not the look or the identity. Face appears to be a powerful category, which is probably why we see them anywhere (clouds, cracks) and why we spend so much time looking at people’s faces (not feet or shoulders).
Caputo, G. (2010). Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion Perception, 39 (7), 1007-1008 DOI: 10.1068/p6466

Remember doing that?

ScienceDaily has a report on work by I. Lindner and others, Observation Inflation: Your actions or mine. (here) They examine the false memories that people have of actions that they did not do but watched someone else do.

Subjects were asked to do a number of things, simple tasks, and then were shown videos of others doing some of the same tasks as well as some different tasks. After two weeks they were asked to list what tasks they personally had done. And they were warned that it was likely that they might include tasks from the videos and they should try to avoid that. In spite of the warning, they had false memories of having done tasks that they only saw done by someone else.

Echterhoff says you shouldn’t worry that this happens all the time — but it’s worth remembering that your memory isn’t always reliable. “It’s good to have an informed doubt or informed skepticism about your memory, so you don’t just easily trust whatever comes to your mind as true and for granted.”

One explanation of these memories – in watching the videos, the subjects used mirror neurons to identify/understand/simulate the actions and these mirror neurons would have also been active if the subjects did actions themselves.

Without involving mirror neurons specifically, I can still see these false memories arising because the session was very motor performance oriented. The subject was asked to perform specific tasks and so they would be concentrating motor plans and programs. This was followed by videos that encouraged comparison of how a task was performed. In that context the novel tasks would likely be viewed not so much as visual scenes but as stimulated motor performances. In that context they would be more likely to feel owned by the subject when they were remembered.

Another step to understanding self

An open question in neuroscience is “How is the self, the ‘I’ constructed?” The more it is examined, the less simple the idea of the self becomes. There is more than one self for different purposes and the limits of these selves are variable depending on the circumstances. We do not notice these complications because normally our selves coincide, as we would expect. Our bodies can expand to include phantom limbs, fake rubber hands, tools and can shrink with various parts being disowned. There are illusions that affect where we believe we are in space. We can also be fooled to accept actions that are not done by our bodies and not accept ownership of actions that are ours. Menzer and group have investigated a specific illusion: how the timing of footfall sounds affect the feeling of ownership of those sounds. Are the sounds part of the whole experience of walking or do they sound like we are being followed by someone else?

In Menzer’s experiments, subjects walked freely around a course while wearing earphones over which they heard their own foot steps with different delays. They were asked to indicate whether the footsteps were theirs. The walking speeds, auditory delays and agency judgments were recorded.

Confirmatory gait agency judgments (the percentage of “yes” responses) in the experiment decreased rapidly for delays > 120ms and reached a first minimum at 400-500 ms. This is very similar to other reported experiments for various motor tasks and visual as well as audio action signals. This is surprising because the time resolution of auditory and visual systems in different. We can order sounds with an accuracy of about 20ms but agency judgments (both visual and auditory) have values of about 100-200ms. This implies a single mechanism for all the senses – a “who” system. They show that the control of full-body locomotion and the building of a conscious experience of it are at least partially distinct brain processes.

Abstract: A fundamental aspect of the “I” of conscious experience is that the self is experienced as a single coherent representation of the entire, spatially situated body. The purpose of the present study was to investigate agency for the entire body. We provided participants with performance-related auditory cues and induced online sensorimotor conflicts in free walking conditions investigating the limits of human consciousness in moving agents. We show that the control of full-body locomotion and the building of a conscious experience of it are at least partially distinct brain processes. The comparable effects on agency using audio-motor and visuo-motor cues as found in the present and previous agency work may reflect common supramodal mechanisms in conscious action monitoring. Our data may help to refine the scientific criteria of selfhood and are of relevance for the investigation of neurological and psychiatric patients with disturbance of selfhood.
Menzer, F., Brooks, A., Halje, P., Faller, C., Vetterli, M., & Blanke, O. (2010). Feeling in control of your footsteps: Conscious gait monitoring and the auditory consequences of footsteps Cognitive Neuroscience, 1 (3), 184-192 DOI: 10.1080/17588921003743581

Going native

The blog i09 has a posting by an unknown author, The Science (Fiction) of Embodied Cognition. (here). He asks how the projection of a personality or mind into an alien body would work in reality as opposed to science fiction stories like Avatar?

That’s what the science of “embodied cognition” is all about. The basic idea in this new(ish) research area (which overlaps with cognitive psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, robotics, and others) is this: Your mind is defined by your physical form. Not just in terms of “the mind is what the brain does”-we all are pretty down with that already. This takes it further to encompass the whole enchilada: your mind-your “I”-is a function of a cephalized, bipedal, plantigrade, bilaterally symmetrical body between 1.5 and 2 meters tall with two arms terminating in five-fingered hands with opposable thumbs, two lungs, a warm-blooded vascular system, mostly hairless skin, two front-focused eyes, etc. etc. Change any aspects of that physical configuration-in subtle or radical ways-and the mind will inevitably change too….Your perceptions, actions and thoughts all feel direct, integrated, and grounded. You don’t “drive” your body, you ARE it. So why do we still assume that we might take that “little man” out and plop him into a different body to “look out of”, without any consequences? …. it does point the way toward a much more interesting angle on Avatar‘s “going native” plotline. If you spent most of your waking hours embodied as a Na’Vi, how could you NOT be increasingly at risk of going native? Your essential psychological human-ness would inevitably drift and deform ….

At least most aliens we imagine are sort of humanoid – maybe we can’t imagine otherwise.

I and me

An article by N. Farb and others, ‘Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference’, (here) looks at the difference between the present ‘I’ and the past ‘me’ in creating the conscious self.

Since William James’ early conceptualization, the ‘self ’ has been characterised as a source of permanence beneath the constantly shifting set of experiences that constitute conscious life. This permanence is often related to the construction of narratives that weave together the threads of temporally disparate experiences into a cohesive fabric. To account for this continuity, William James posited an explanatory ‘me’ to make sense of the ‘I’ acting in the present moment…Narrative self-reference stands in stark contrast to the immediate, agentic ‘I’ supporting the notion of momentary experience as an expression of selfhood. Most examinations of self-reference ignore mechanisms of momentary consciousness, which may represent core aspects of self-experience achieved earlier in development.

Here is the abstract:

It has long been theorised that there are two temporally distinct forms of self-reference: extended self-reference linking experiences across time, and momentary self-reference centred on the present. To characterise these two aspects of awareness, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine monitoring of enduring traits (’narrative’ focus, NF) or momentary experience (’experiential’ focus, EF) in both novice participants and those having attended an 8 week course in mindfulness meditation, a program that trains individuals to develop focused attention on the present. In novices, EF yielded focal reductions in self-referential cortical midline regions (medial prefrontal cortex, mPFC) associated with NF. In trained participants, EF resulted in more marked and pervasive reductions in the mPFC, and increased engagement of a right lateralised network, comprising the lateral PFC and viscerosomatic areas such as the insula, secondary somatosensory cortex and inferior parietal lobule. Functional connectivity analyses further demonstrated a strong coupling between the right insula and the mPFC in novices that was uncoupled in the mindfulness group. These results suggest a fundamental neural dissociation between two distinct forms of self-awareness that are habitually integrated but can be dissociated through attentional training: the self across time and in the present moment.