3304 The Neuroscience of Self-Consciousness: From the Body to Subjectivity

Saturday, February 19, 2011: 2:00 PM
146A (Washington Convention Center )
Olaf Blanke , Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland

Experiences happen for someone, the subject or the self, in an immediate way. They are generally felt as “my” experiences and seem to be present whenever “I” am perceiving, thinking, or feeling something. This is the subjectivity of consciousness, the fact that consciousness is bound to the self. Although many people consider the self and subjectivity as one of the most astonishing features of the human mind, it has mainly been approached by philosophical inquiry and not by scientific research. This has led to an overabundance of diverging theories about the self and subjectivity (self-consciousness). Self-consciousness is still deemed by many scientists as not yet approachable by empirical research. It is often argued that this is the case because science lacks experimental control of self-consciousness.

I will present three lines of evidence suggesting that self-consciousness is based on the elementary non-cognitive brain mechanisms of how the brain integrates multisensory bodily signals. (1) The experimental manipulation of self-consciousness in healthy subjects using different virtual reality technologies to achieve multisensory and/or sensorimotor conflict. (2) Neuroimaging data during experimentally altered states of self-consciousness using an exciting new research platform that merges virtual reality and robotics with functional magnetic resonance imaging. (3) Data in neurological patients suffering from abnormal states of bodily self-consciousness, such as out-of-body experiences. I will argue that these data on how the brain represents the body are also of great relevance for virtual reality, medicine, and man-machine interactions. I will conclude with a data-driven neuroscientific theory of self-consciousness and subjectivity.