Self Between Brain and World: Neuropsychodynamic Approach, Social Embedded Brain and Relational Self

  • Georg NorthoffEmail author


The present chapter aims to target yet another central feature of the mind, the self as the subject of all our experience and hence of consciousness. More specifically, the focus is on different concepts of the self and how they are related to recent findings about neural mechanisms related to the self-reference of stimuli. I first introduce different basic concepts of the self as they are currently discussed in philosophy. The first concept of self is the self as mental substance, which was introduced originally by Descartes. This is rejected by current and more empirically oriented concepts of the self where the idea of a mental substance is replaced by assuming specific self-representational capacities. These self-representational capacities represent the body’s and brain’s physical, neuronal states in a summarized, coordinated, and integrated way. As such, the self-representational concept of the self must be distinguished from the phenomenological concept of self that is supposed to be an integral part of the experience and thus of consciousness. This phenomenal self resurfaces in the current debate as the “minimal self”—a basic sense of self in our experience that is supposed to be closely related to both brain and body. Current neuroscience investigates the spatial and temporal neural mechanisms underlying those stimuli that are closely related to the self when compared to the stimuli that show no relation or reference to the self. This is described as the self-reference effect. When comparing self- versus non-self-specific stimuli, neural activity in the middle regions of the brain, the so-called cortical midline structures, is increased. Moreover, increased neuronal synchronization in the gamma frequency domain can be observed. The question is how specific these findings are for the concept of self as discussed in philosophy. Neuronal specificity describes the specific and exclusive association of the midline regions with the self. This is not the case since the same regions are also associated with a variety of other functions. This goes along with the quest for the psychological and experimental specificity of psychological functions and experimental paradigms and measures used to test for the self. One may also raise the issue of phenomenal specificity: the concept of phenomenal specificity refers to whether the phenomenal features of the self, that is, minessness and belongingness, are distinguished from other phenomenal features like intentionality or qualia. Finally, one may discuss the question of conceptual specificity that targets the distinction between the concepts of self-reference and self.


Self Mental substance Self-representation Empirical self Phenomenal self Minimal self Cortical midline structures Self-reference effect Gamma synchronization Neuronal, phenomenal, psychological, experimental, and conceptual specificity 


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Mind, Brain Imaging, and Neuroethics, Institute of Mental Health ResearchUniversity of OttawaOttawaCanada

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