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Self-recognition, theory-of-mind, and self-awareness: What side are you on?

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A fashionable view in comparative psychology states that primates possess self-awareness because they exhibit mirror self-recognition (MSR), which in turn makes it possible to infer mental states in others (“theory-of-mind”; ToM). In cognitive neuroscience, an increasingly popular position holds that the right hemisphere represents the centre of self-awareness because MSR and ToM tasks presumably increase activity in that hemisphere. These two claims are critically assessed here as follows: (1) MSR should not be equated with full-blown self-awareness, as it most probably only requires kinaesthetic self-knowledge and does not involve access to one's mental events; (2) ToM and self-awareness are fairly independent and should also not be taken as equivalent notions; (3) MSR and ToM tasks engage medial and left brain areas; (4) other self-awareness tasks besides MSR and ToM tasks (e.g., self-description, autobiography) mostly recruit medial and left brain areas; (5) and recent neuropsychological evidence implies that inner speech (produced by the left hemisphere) plays a significant role in self-referential activity. The main conclusions reached based on this analysis are that (a) organisms that display MSR most probably do not possess introspective self-awareness, and (b) self-related processes most likely engage a distributed network of brain regions situated in both hemispheres.
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Keywords: Inner speech; Right hemisphere; Self-awareness; Self-recognition; Theory-of-mind

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Mount Royal University, Calgary, AB, Canada

Publication date: May 1, 2011

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