In a study published in the April 28, 2011 journal of Neuron, cognitive scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, and U.C. Berkeley identified a brain region called the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) as critical for establishing one’s particular place in space and perception of themselves (What is my place in the world?)

There is a boomerang-shaped area of your brain, located behind your eyes (regenual anterior cingulate cortex – or pACC), that is in charge of our self-evaluation. So, if you are embarrassed in a social situation, or questioning your self-worth, this is the area of the brain that addresses that.

Neuroscientists have been trying to decades to understand how to integrate information from all our senses and motor signals to get to self-awareness and first-person perspective. They realize there are a lot of different areas of the brain that have to communicate with each other in order to come up with the emotions and cognitive skills necessary for self-evaluation, but just haven’t been able to see the overall picture yet.

Neurological studies of patients who have reported out-of-body experiences have provided some evidence that brain damage interfering with the integration of multi-sensory body information may lead to pathological changes of the first-person perspective and self-location. However, it is still not known how to examine brain mechanisms associated with self-consciousness.

Researchers probed the neuroanatomy of embarrassment by asking healthy people, and those with neurodegenerative diseases, to sing along to the Temptations’ “My Girl.” Horns blared, strings flowed and the subject’s voice soared—and then the music and professional vocals were stripped away. Subjects were then asked to watch a video of their own solitary singing while researchers measured their reactions – racing hearts, sweaty palms, squirms and grimaces. Those with damage in the right pACC were least likely to cringe at their own performance.

“Our results illustrate the power of merging technologies from engineering with those of neuroimaging and cognitive science for the understanding of the nature of one of the greatest mysteries of the human mind: self-consciousness and its neural mechanisms,” explains senior study author, Dr. Olaf Blanke, from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. “Our findings on experimentally and pathologically induced altered states of self-consciousness present a powerful new research technology and reveal that TPJ activity reflects one of the most fundamental subjective feelings of humans: the feeling that ‘I’ am an entity that is localized at a position in space and that ‘I’ perceive the world from here.”

“Embarrassment,” Blanke says, “may have evolved to motivate us to repair social bonds that become strained when we fall short of expectations.”

The study shows that, although scientists have come a long way in understanding how the brain processes learning, language and problem solving there is still a long way to go to understand the mysteries of consciousness, including embarrassment, pride, guilt and other reactions.

This is Ron White, two-time USA Memory Champion , memory training expert, and memory keynote speaker.




Ramini’s Blog – Brain Mechanisms of Self-Consciousness:

Scientific American – How Embarrassing: Researchers Pinpoint Self-Consciousness in the Brain:

Science Daily – Neurorobotics Reveals Brain Mechanisms of Self-Consciousness:

Psychology Today – What is Consciousness: