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Understanding the self: A cultural neuroscience approach

Georg Northoff, MD, MA, PhD, EJLB-CIHR Michael Smith Chair in Neu­ro­sciences and Men­tal Health, Canada Research Chair for Mind, Brain Imag­ing and Neuroethics, Institute of Men­tal Health Research, University of Ottawa   Web­site  |  Pub­li­ca­tions

Abstract: The self is cen­tral to our expe­ri­ence and con­scious­ness of our envi­ron­ment includ­ing its cul­tural dif­fer­ences. Most recently stud­ies high­lighted the neu­ronal mech­a­nisms under­ly­ing our sense of self. These show strong involve­ment of cor­ti­cal mid­line struc­tures and close over­lap between self and rest­ing state activ­ity.  The con­tri­bu­tion dis­cusses these find­ings and how they are medi­ated by cul­tural dif­fer­ences and what this implies for the con­cept of self.

Bio: Georg Northoff com­pleted his ini­tial train­ing in medicine/psychiatry and phi­los­o­phy in Ger­many. Dr. Northoff’s pre­vi­ous aca­d­e­mic posi­tions included Pro­fes­sor­ships at the Uni­ver­sity of Magde­burg, Ger­many, and Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, U.S.A. With over 100 sci­en­tific pub­li­ca­tions, his cur­rent focus is pre­dom­i­nantly on the self – hav­ing devel­oped the con­cept of cor­ti­cal mid­line struc­tures. Exper­i­men­tal research within his unit focuses on the func­tional and bio­chem­i­cal mech­a­nisms under­ly­ing our sense of self in both healthy sub­jects and psy­chi­atric patients.

In addi­tion to neu­roimag­ing, he also focuses on neu­roeth­i­cal issues. Early on, he inves­ti­gated issues related to per­sonal iden­tity in patients with deep brain stim­u­la­tion and brain tis­sue trans­plan­ta­tion. Another neu­roeth­i­cal focus is on the impact of emo­tions and empa­thy in the deci­sion mak­ing involved in informed con­sent, which is of par­tic­u­lar rel­e­vance regard­ing psy­chi­atric patients.

These issues con­verge nicely with his deep stand­ing inter­est in the dis­ci­pline of neu­rophi­los­o­phy. He is con­sid­ered one of the main founders from the European-continental side, as is illus­trated by sev­eral papers and books includ­ing “Phi­los­o­phy of the Brain” (John Ben­jamins, 2004).

Dr. Northoff is also the author of “Neu­ropsy­cho­analy­sis: Brain, Self and Objects (Oxford, 2011) and the forth­com­ing “Unlock­ing the Brain” (Oxford, 10/2012), as well as “Die Fah­n­dung nach dem Ich: Eine neu­rophilosophis­che Krim­i­nalgeschichte” (“The Search for the Ego: A Neu­rophilo­soph­i­cal Mys­tery Novel”) (Ran­dom House GmbH, 2009), in which he frames the lat­est neu­ro­sci­en­tific results and neu­rophil­soph­i­cal reflec­tions on the self into the frame­work of a mys­tery novel for a gen­eral audience.