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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Neural activity associated with self-reflection

Uwe Herwig12, Tina Kaffenberger1, Caroline Schell13, Lutz Jäncke4 and Annette B Brühl1*

Author affiliations

1 Department for Social and General Psychiatry Zurich West, University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

2 Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy III, University of Ulm, Ulm, Germany

3 Department of Neurology, University Hospital Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany

4 Department of Neuropsychology, Institute of Psychology, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

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Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:52  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-13-52

Published: 24 May 2012



Self-referential cognitions are important for self-monitoring and self-regulation. Previous studies have addressed the neural correlates of self-referential processes in response to or related to external stimuli. We here investigated brain activity associated with a short, exclusively mental process of self-reflection in the absence of external stimuli or behavioural requirements. Healthy subjects reflected either on themselves, a personally known or an unknown person during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The reflection period was initialized by a cue and followed by photographs of the respective persons (perception of pictures of oneself or the other person).


Self-reflection, compared with reflecting on the other persons and to a major part also compared with perceiving photographs of one-self, was associated with more prominent dorsomedial and lateral prefrontal, insular, anterior and posterior cingulate activations. Whereas some of these areas showed activity in the “other”-conditions as well, self-selective characteristics were revealed in right dorsolateral prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex for self-reflection; in anterior cingulate cortex for self-perception and in the left inferior parietal lobe for self-reflection and -perception.


Altogether, cingulate, medial and lateral prefrontal, insular and inferior parietal regions show relevance for self-related cognitions, with in part self-specificity in terms of comparison with the known-, unknown- and perception-conditions. Notably, the results are obtained here without behavioural response supporting the reliability of this methodological approach of applying a solely mental intervention. We suggest considering the reported structures when investigating psychopathologically affected self-related processing.