Neuropsychological Perspectives

From a neuropsychological perspective, brain functions underlie all dimensions and activities of the self. Yet an important question is how the functioning of biophysical structures such as the brain and nervous system can give rise to the self, which can be consciously experienced, either directly or through its activity. This question relies on the same mind-body problem that first arose with Descartes. One solution to this mental-physical divide proposed by such neuroscientists as Australian Sir John Eccles and Hungarian-born Michael Polanyi is the concept of emergent systems, or marginal control of lower systems by the organizational rules of higher systems. As the nervous system evolved into a complex set of structures, neural circuitry gained a concomitant complexity of organized functioning such that a new property, consciousness, emerged. This emergent property has capabilities and activities (such as the experience of mental images) that are a result of the organization of neural patterns but are not reducible to its component neural parts, much as water molecules have different qualities from those of hydrogen and oxygen atoms alone. Yet consciousness and thus experience of the self are necessarily embodied in and constrained by these patterned brain and biological processes.

Thus, the sense of self as having continuity relies on the capacity of sev eral structures of the brain (such as the hippocampus and specialized areas of the association cortex) for forming, storing, and retrieving personal memories as well as representations of background bodily and emotional states. A specific self-concept, as explored in social cognitive research, can only be developed through the organizational capacity of the prefrontal cortex to self-observe and construct cognitive schemas. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in carrying out many actions attributed to the self, such as the planned action of self-efficacy, and the techniques of presenting the self in a particular light, as in self-monitoring. Research such as that by Antonio Damasio, an American neurologist, indicates that when normal functioning of specific neural circuits is disturbed, deficits also occur in these experiences of self as knower and owner of mental and physical states. For example, with anasagnosia, damage to the right somatosensory cortices impairs a person's ability to be aware of damage to the body or associated problems in the functioning of the self. The body itself may become completely disowned by the person, and the unified sense of "me" is fractured.

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