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Journal ArticleDOI

Right hemispheric self-awareness: a critical assessment.

01 Sep 2002-Consciousness and Cognition (Academic Press)-Vol. 11, Iss: 3, pp 396-401

TL;DR: This commentary evaluates the claim made by Keenan et al. that since self-recognition results from right hemispheric activity, self-awareness too is likely to be produced by the activity of the same hemisphere and presents two views that challenge this rationale.
Abstract: In this commentary I evaluate the claim made by Keenan, Nelson, O’Connor, and Pascual-Leone (2001) that since self-recognition results from right hemispheric activity, self-awareness too is likely to be produced by the activity of the same hemisphere. This reasoning is based on the assumption that self-recognition represents a valid operationalization of self-awareness; I present two views that challenge this rationale. Keenan et al. also support their claim with published evidence relating brain activity and self-awareness; I closely examine their analysis of one specific review of literature and conclude that it appears to be biased. Finally, recent research suggests that inner speech (which is associated with left hemispheric activity) is linked to self-awareness—an observation that further casts doubt on the existence of a right hemispheric self-awareness.

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Right hemispheric self-awareness: A
critical assessment
Alain Morin
*
Behavioral Sciences, Mount Royal College, 4825 Richard Road S.W., Calgary, AB,
Canada T3E 6K6
Received 28 September 2001
Abstract
In this commentary I evaluate the claim made by Keenan, Nelson, OÕConnor, and
Pascual-Leone (2001) that since self-recognition results from right hemispheric ac-
tivity, self-awareness too is likely to be produced by the activity of the same hemi-
sphere. This reasoning is based on the assumption that self-recognition represents a
valid operationalization of self-awareness; I present two views that challenge this
rationale. Keenan et al. also support their claim with published evidence relating
brain activity and self-awareness; I closely examine their analysis of one specific
review of literature and conclude that it appears to be biased. Finally, recent research
suggests that inner speech (which is associated with left hemispheric activity) is
linked to self-awareness—an observation that further casts doubt on the existence of
a right hemispheric self-awareness.
Ó 2002 Elsevier Science (USA). All rights reserved.
In a widely publicized communication published in Nature, Keenan et al. (2001)
report data suggesting that self-recognition would be the result of right hemispheric
activity. The team of researchers first presented a series of pictures to a group of
patients undergoing an intracarotid amobarbital (WADA) test. The pictures
represented faces generated by morphing the image of a famous person with the
Consciousness and Cognition 11 (2002) 396–401
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*
Fax: +403-240-6659.
E-mail address: amorin@mtroyal.ab.ca; webpage: http://www2.mtroyal.ab.ca/amorin/.
1053-8100/02/$ - see front matter Ó 2002 Elsevier Science (USA). All rights reserved.
PII: S1053-8100(02)00009 - 0

patientÕs own face, and participants were asked to remember what picture was shown
during selective anaesthesia of the right and the left hemispheres. Results indicate
that most patients were unable to remember seeing their own face following an in-
activation of the right hemisphere, whereas anaesthesia of the left hemisphere did not
interfere with recall of the ‘‘self’’ face. In a second study normal participants ex-
hibited significantly greater right hemispheric activity (as measured by evoked po-
tentials induced by transcranial magnetic stimulation) while presented with pictures
containing elements of their own face, as opposed to images of a famous person.
The fact that the right hemisphere seems to be involved in self-recognition is both
intriguing and informative; but then the authors go on to suggest that ‘‘neural
substrates of the right hemisphere may selectively participate in processes linked to
self-awareness’’ (Keenan et al., 2001, p. 305)—a problematic claim I wish to closely
examine here.
1
Self-recognition has been repeatedly used to determine the presence or absence of
self-awareness in primates (see Gallup, 1968, 1985, 1998) and young children (see
Amsterdam, 1972). The basic hypothesis states that to recognize oneself one must
first know who one is—one must possess a ‘‘self-concept,’’ which presupposes self-
observation; furthermore, exhibiting self-directed behaviors in front of a mirror
would indicate that one is capable of becoming the object of oneÕs attention, which is
the very definition of self-awareness (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Mead, 1934).
This reasoning has been challenged by Mitchell (1993) and more recently by
Povinelli (1995, 1998). They both believe that self-recognition is actually associated
with an unsophisticated self-concept and does not require introspection. MitchellÕs
argument essentially states that what the organism recognizes in front of a mirror is
its body, by matching the image it sees in the mirror with a preexisting kinesthetic
representation of it. Consequently, the only awareness the organism would have of
itself before self-recognition is a kinesthetic sense of its body—not a ‘‘full-blown,’’
mature awareness of its subjective experience. PovinelliÕs view is consistent with
MitchellÕs, except he thinks that what is recognized in front of a mirror is behavior
emitted by the organism—the animal infers that what it sees in the mirror is the same
as what it does. Povinelli also questions the presumed ability of animals that have
been shown to be capable of self-recognition to make inferences about othersÕ mental
states. More precisely, Gallup (e.g., 1983) maintains that some primates are self-
aware not only because they show self-recognition, but also because they emit be-
haviors in their natural environment (deception, altruism, empathy, etc.) that
strongly suggest an ability to ponder potential intentions and emotions in others
behaviors that presuppose an access to their own mental states. According to
Povinelli (1995, 1998), the problem is that in rigorous experiments primates are ac-
1
It is very difficult to determine the exact meaning of ‘‘self-awareness’’ in the Keenan et al.
(2001) article since the authors do not explicitly define this notion. Arguably, self-awareness is
likely to be made up of distinct processes and self-representations scattered throughout the
brain—and not just restricted to the right hemisphere. In the absence of a clear definition,
however, and since Keenan et al. seem to treat self-awareness as a unitary entity with
presumably unitary neurological substrates, I embrace this view in the present commentary.
A. Morin / Consciousness and Cognition 11 (2002) 396–401 397

tually incapable of inferring mental states in others. In one study, for example,
chimpanzees (previously tested for self-recognition) were first blindfolded in order to
experience how it feels not to be able to see. Then they were allowed to ask for food
from two experimenters—one who could see the animals and another one who was
blindfolded. If these primates were truly self-aware (i.e., if they really knew through
introspection what it is like not to see), we would expect them to infer that a
blindfolded experimenter cannot see them and to gesture only to the person who
could see them. However, all subjects were just as likely to gesture to the person who
could not see them as to the person who could.
Even if one assumes that self-recognition does indicate the presence of at least a
simple form of self-awareness in animals and humans, I would suggest that these two
operations are independent and should certainly not be equated. Self-awareness
represents an ability—again, the capacity to become the object of oneÕs own atten-
tion; self-recognition would rather be a (fairly primitive) manifestation or expression
of self-awareness—the consequence of being able to look at oneself objectively. Thus
because self-recognition takes place in the right hemisphere hardly means that self-
awareness itself is located in that hemisphere.
If we take Keenan et al. (2001) rationale and stretch it to its logical limits, then it
would mean that the right hemisphere should be more self-aware than the left
hemisphere because it actually is superior to the left hemisphere at self-recognition
(Keenan et al., 2001; Puccetti, 1976). This is highly unlikely. It is a well-known fact
that the left disconnected hemisphere is fully self-aware because we can ask verbal
questions to this part of the patientÕs brain and it will provide answers that clearly
indicate that it has a full sense of self, e.g., the name it collectively shares with the
right hemisphere, its current feelings, future goals, aspirations, and so on (Sperry,
Zaidel, & Zaidel, 1979). I seriously doubt that anyone would argue that the left
hemisphere is less self-aware that the right hemisphere even if it is poor at self-rec-
ognition.
In support to this notion that the right hemisphere would be at least partially
responsible for self-awareness, Keenan et al. refer to an article published by
Wheeler, Stuss, and Tulving (1997) and state that ‘‘patients with lesions to the right
fronto-temporal cortex may experience a cognitive detachment from self’’ (p. 305).
However, a closer analysis of this source actually reveals that Wheeler et al. do not
specifically mention the right hemisphere—they link both frontal lobes to self-
awareness (what they call ‘‘autonoetic consciousness’’). On one instance they do
report a case study of a patient suffering from right prefrontal cortex damage who
displays ‘‘a dissociation between knowledge and the realization of personal rele-
vance of that knowledge’’ (p. 348), but then comment on another case of disturbed
self-awareness, this time involving bilateral orbital and lower mesial frontal pa-
thology. Moreover, Wheeler et al. examine other brain pathologies leading to
various forms of lack of self-awareness that would be produced by damage to
sections of the left hemisphere. The overall conclusion of Wheeler et al.Õs review is
that ‘‘the prefrontal cortex, in conjunction with its reciprocal connections with
other cortical and subcortical structures, empowers healthy human adults with the
capacity to consider the selfÕs extended existence throughout time’’ (p. 350); there is
398 A. Morin / Consciousness and Cognition 11 (2002) 396–401

no specific reference here to the right frontal lobe being exclusively involved in self-
awareness.
If one wishes to localize self-awareness somewhere in the brain, then I would
propose that the available evidence is rather pointing toward the left hemisphere
(Morin, 2001), in conjunction with other bilateral cerebral structures, as Wheeler
et al. (1997) suggest. In a recent study, Craik et al. (1999) assessed brain activity
in normal subjects who were working on a self-referential encoding task. Partic-
ipants were asked to evaluate how well trait adjectives described themselves by
pressing response keys while relative regional cerebral blood flow was being
measured. Such a task obviously requires self-awareness because it involves
thinking about oneself. Control tasks included non-self-referential assignments—
judging how well trait adjectives described a public figure, how socially desirable
the trait adjectives were, or how many syllables there were in each adjective. In
this experiment the self-referential encoding task produced significantly more ac-
tivity in the left medial region of the superior frontal gyrus and in the left inferior
frontal gyrus.
Interestingly enough, these brain areas of the left hemisphere have also been
shown to be involved in inner speech (see Morin, 1999). For example, silently
reading single words produces an increased activity in the left inferior frontal region
(McGuire et al., 1996). Inner speech itself has also been associated with self-
awareness (see Morin, 2001). Disruption of self-talk following aphasia for instance,
negatively affects self-awareness (e.g., Moss, 1972); empirical evidence supports the
notion of a relation between inner speech and self-awareness (Morin, 1995a, Morin,
Everett, Turcotte, & Tardif, 1993; Rivest & Khawaja, unpublished observations,
1995; Siegrist, 1995). For example, Siegrist (1996) found that highly self-aware in-
dividuals use inner speech more frequently in comparison to less self-aware indi-
viduals. And theoretical analyses concerning the specific nature of a causal link
between self-talk and self-awareness have been proposed (see Morin, 1993, 1995b).
To illustrate, inner speech can reproduce social mechanisms contributing to self-
awareness, i.e., self-talk allows for the incorporation of other personsÕ potential
views of oneself (‘‘What did he/she think of my conference?’’), which then leads to a
more objective awareness of oneself (‘‘He/she seemed to appreciate my sense of
humor...’’).
All this challenges the hypothesis according to which ‘‘a right-hemisphere network
(would give) rise to self-awareness’’ (Keenan et al., 2001, p. 305): Again, the fact that
self-recognition (which is likely to represent a partial and poor operationalization of
self-awareness) is the result of right hemispheric activity certainly does not imply that
the same hemisphere is responsible for self-awareness; in addition, one must not
neglect the role of language (i.e., inner speech) in self-awareness—an activity deeply
associated with normal functioning of the left hemisphere.
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References
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Book
01 Dec 1934-

10,726 citations


"Right hemispheric self-awareness: a..." refers background in this paper

  • ...The basic hypothesis states that to recognize oneself one must first know who one is—one must possess a ‘‘self-concept,’’ which presupposes selfobservation; furthermore, exhibiting self-directed behaviors in front of a mirror would indicate that one is capable of becoming the object of one s attention, which is the very definition of self-awareness (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Mead, 1934)....

    [...]

  • ...…must possess a ‘‘self-concept,’’ which presupposes selfobservation; furthermore, exhibiting self-directed behaviors in front of a mirror would indicate that one is capable of becoming the object of one s attention, which is the very definition of self-awareness (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Mead, 1934)....

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9,101 citations


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2,086 citations


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  • ...If one wishes to localize self-awareness somewhere in the brain, then I would propose that the available evidence is rather pointing toward the left hemisphere (Morin, 2001), in conjunction with other bilateral cerebral structures, as Wheeler et al. (1997) suggest....

    [...]


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Beulah Amsterdam1Institutions (1)
TL;DR: The results indicate the following age-related sequence of behavior before the mirror: the first prolonged and repeated reaction of an infant to his mirror image is that of a sociable “playmate” from about 6 through 12 months of age.
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  • ...…linked to self-awareness’’ (Keenan et al., 2001, p. 305)—a problematic claim I wish to closely examine here.1 Self-recognition has been repeatedly used to determine the presence or absence of self-awareness in primates (see Gallup, 1968, 1985, 1998) and young children (see Amsterdam, 1972)....

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