Science and Consciousness Review (SCR) is a community effort featuring summaries of academic studies about consciousness and related fields. The main goal of this scientific community is to study how brain processes perception, memory and attention. However, field of psychology has limited research in the area of consciousness, that's why this journal was created. It may be one of the most interesting and perhaps neglected fields in the field of psychology. Field of consciousness research is growing rapidly, numerous students and scientists from all over the world are getting interested in the area of consciousness.

Self Awareness

How We understand Ourselves.

Review of:
Platek, S., Thomson, J., and Gallup, G., Jr. (2004). Cross-modal self-recognition: The role of visual, auditory, and olfactory primes. Consciousness and Cognition, Vol. 13, 197 - 210.

Self-awareness is the ability to focus one’s attention on oneself, rather that the world around us. It is thought that this skill is fundamental to the development of social intelligence. Social intelligence is a broad category, but it is basically the capacity to understand what’s happening in the world around us, and to relate to it in a personally and socially effective way. The emergence of consciousness as we know it is thought to be directly related to the development of social intelligence and self-awareness.

Humans are among only a few different species that appear to exhibit this quality. The great apes show evidence of self-awareness, as do bottlenose dolphins and some species of monkeys. But, for example, if you were take most species of animals and put them in front of a mirror, they will behave as if they are interacting with another animal. (Except maybe a cat, which will just ignore it.) Only animals with a developed concept of self-awareness will recognize that the image in the mirror is themselves. But even humans are not born with this ability. Like many species of animals, human infants will interact with their reflection as if it was another baby. Children typically begin showing signs of self-awareness around 18 . 24 months of age.

Much of the research that’s been done on the development of self-awareness has studied it with respect to the visual sense. The results of self-face identification experiments seem to show that information about oneself is processed mainly by the right prefrontal cortex of the brain. This appears to be true not only for recognizing oneself visually. The right prefrontal cortex also appears to be the primary part of the brain involved in processing personal memories, descriptions of oneself, knowledge of one’s own body parts, and mental state attribution (the ability to associate states of mind with a given being).

Studies have shown that information about the self is processed from each of the five senses. But little research to date has investigated how information from the different senses is integrated into an image of oneself. It has been suggested previously that multiple points in the brain (a distributed self-network) are involved in constructing a self image. However, the present study is the first to suggest that, rather than each sense acting independently, the five senses act together to contribute to the concept of self. This study investigated how information about oneself from multiple senses affects self-face recognition. To examine this, the researchers conducted three experiments. In the first, eleven right-handed students from the State University of New York at Albany were presented a series of 120 images; 20 self-pictures, 20 upside down self pictures, 20 pictures of people known to the participant, 20 upside down pictures of know people, 20 pictures of strangers, and 20 upside down pictures of strangers. Along with each picture, an odor was presented; either the participant’s own smell, or one of two synthetic odors (the hormone androstenone and the alcohol phenylethanol). For each picture/odor pairing, the participants were asked to hit one of three keys on a computer as quickly as they could, to identify whether the picture was themselves, a friend, or a stranger. The researchers measured the participant’s response time for each pairing.

In the second experiment, a similar series of pictures was shown to nine participants (a set of 180 pictures, 30 of each type). This time, one of three names was shown with each picture, either the participant’s name, the name of a friend, or the name of a stranger. The third experiment was much like the second, except instead of participants reading a name, a recording of a name was played for them to hear. Again, all participants were right-handed.

In all of the experiments, when the participants were presented pictures of themselves paired with another piece of self sensory information, their reactions times significantly decreased. However, pairing pictures of friends with their names (spoken or printed) did not reduce reaction time. These results lend support to the idea that information about the self from different senses is processed in a similar way in the brain. They suggest that there is a sort of central mechanism responsible for perceiving and thinking about oneself. Furthermore, there is evidence of nerve cells in the middle of the brain that are dedicated to processing information from multiple senses.

And there is other research that supports the idea of an integrated self information network in the brain. A number of studies have investigated how information about oneself is processed differently in people showing schizotypal personality traits. A schizotypal trait is one that reflects an abnormal interpretation of reality, but a not complete break from it. People with schizotypal personality disorder typically have distorted perceptions of themselves and the world around them. As noted earlier, it is thought that the right side of the brain controls how we perceive ourselves. Accordingly, most people will react quicker in experiments testing self-recognition if they are using their left hand. However, people who score highly on the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire (SPQ) do not show this advantage. It may be related that people with high scores on the SPQ also show difficulty processing so-called “mental states”. They are less likely to be able to understand what another person is thinking or feeling, and have difficulty relating to others’ states of mind. This may be a result of a disordered neural system for processing the concept of self.

The case for an overall network in the brain responsible for understanding ideas about the self is fairly strong. If self-processing was controlled by systems acting independently, one wouldn’t expect information gathered from one sense to affect processing by another sense. However, further research is needed to verify these results and to explain the self-processing network in greater detail. When we have a better understanding of how the mind and brain are able to think about themselves, our understanding of consciousness in general will be greatly enhanced as well.

© 2005 J. Freedlander
More from Jonathan Freedlander. How children see belief in others


Cross-modal self-recognition: the role of visual, auditory, and olfactory primes.
Platek SM, Thomson JW, Gallup GG Jr.

Three priming experiments were conducted to determine how information about the self from different sensory modalities/cognitive domains affects self-face recognition. Being exposed to your body odor, seeing your name, and hearing your name all facilitated self-face recognition in a reaction time task. No similar cross-modal facilitation was found among stimuli from familiar or novel individuals. The finding of a left-hand advantage for self-face recognition was replicated when no primes were presented. These data, along with other recent results suggest the brain processes/represents information about the self in highly integrated ways.